It is just three months before Portugal hosts the Uefa European Football Championship. Like it or not, the proportion of our lives spent thinking about football is to grow considerably bigger as the year shivers on towards summer.
For that, advertising should get a share of the thanks (or grief, if football bores you to tears). Advertisers of all shapes and sizes are now gearing up or adding the finishing touches to football-related campaigns set to run in the weeks before kick-off on 12 June.
The World Cup and summer Olympic Games are bigger events than Euro 2004, but there's still lots to get advertisers excited. A combined global audience of seven billion is expected to watch and the fact that the tournament is held in a European time zone means that advertisers and sponsors are guaranteed big TV ratings in key day-parts.
The scope of marketing activity around Euro 2004 will vary hugely. Corporate hospitality, consumer promotions, sponsored streakers, you name it. But the most high-profile arena is undoubtedly tailored advertising campaigns starring footballers.
It's here that official sponsors such as Adidas, Coca-Cola and T-Mobile will compete most visibly with the likes of Nike, Pepsi and Vodafone - brands that target fans more through ads, endorsements and team sponsorships.
No prizes for guessing who'll be the centre of attention this year. David Beckham's move to Real Madrid confirmed his status as European football's most marketable commodity. He may not be as gifted as Zinedine Zidane or Ronaldo, but he is the advertising world's most valuable player, earning around £15 million a year from endorsement deals with the likes of Pepsi, Vodafone and Adidas.
Pepsi's Euro 2004 campaign, created by the French agency CLM/BBDO, will feature the England captain alongside fellow stars such as Francesco Totti and Raul. The ad is an extension of the "dare for more" campaign, which debuted in January and saw Beyonce, Britney and Pink stomp around in gladiator garb. Beckham et al will swap their football strips for leather skirts in the latest installment.
The players are key weapons in Pepsi's ongoing battle with Coca-Cola, an official sponsor at the FIFA World Cup and European Championships since the 80s. During that time, Coke has used advertising to build a rapport with fans, rather than splash out on sponsoring big-name footballers.
During World Cup 2002, its above-the-line activity focused on the three-legged animated character Leggsy, who also appears in Coke's sponsorship credits on ITV's The Premiership.
That said, Coke does recognise that tactical use of celebrities can amplify campaigns at national level. In recent times, it has used the Dutch legend Marco Van Basten and the current Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy to front campaigns in Holland, while Portugal's icon Luis Figo is lined up for activity on his home turf this July.
Most interestingly for Brits, Coke has paid the England starlet Wayne Rooney £500,000 to front a new campaign in the run-up to Euro 2004. Although he lacks Beckham's looks or charisma, Rooney is a compelling choice, encapsulating the bulldog fighting spirit that goes down well with English fans. Good performances from Roonaldo would bode well for Coke's fan-focused strategy.
Coke is also planning to use Rooney's girlfriend in the campaign - the latest in a line of ads that peer a little bit deeper into a sportman's locker than we're used to from traditional sports advertising.
Vodafone has tried this approach using its commercial links with Manchester United and Beckham to promote Vodafone Live!. In the ad by Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam, a smug Beckham uses his Vodafone Live! connection to show off his plush Spanish villa to former team-mates Phil and Gary Neville.
Adidas also pulled off a neat trick by introducing Beckham to Jonny Wilkinson in the run-up to the Rugby World Cup. The ad ("kicking it", by 180 Amsterdam) was essentially about both players using Predator boots, but the fact that it was unscripted, unconventional and shot in England gave it novelty value.
Casting two sportsmen hardly famed for their personalities worked well too. The naturally shy pair seemed to get on well on screen and the tabloids picked up on their apparently blossoming friendship. What are the odds on a Euro 2004 follow-up with Jonny giving Becks advice on how to beat the French?
Latest off the rumour mill is that Adidas has signed up Arsenal's Ashley Cole and Patrick Viera for its Euro 2004 effort. The campaign will reinforce Adidas' "impossible is nothing" global brand campaign starring Adidas athletes of past and present.
In terms of image transference, top-notch soccer stars have two attributes brands want to tap into: performance and personality. In Thierry Henry, Renault has found both. In Michael Owen, the likes of Lucozade, Pepsi, Walkers, Nestle, Tissot watches, Jaguar and Umbro are banking on the England striker to bang in the goals. Owen might even rival Beckham for exposure this summer, assuming he's fit.
Outside the A-list, the emphasis is on humour and irony. Carlsberg gave the pundit Alan Hansen a cameo role as a bootroom boy during its "If only Carlsberg ..." campaign. And Walkers has long used Gary Lineker to great effect, depicting the squeaky clean ex-England attacker as a pathological snack stealer.
Although a Walkers' spokeswoman says there are no plans to upweight media spend during Euro 2004, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO debuted a TV spot in January featuring one former England manager (Bobby Robson) as Lineker's conscience and another (Terry Venables) as the devil. This month, a sequel will launch featuring the same cast and a mystery star (not a footballer, we're told).
Celebrity endorsement can be a very effective way of creating an emotional bond with audiences. But it can go horribly wrong and, given recent events, one wonders if the maxim "never work with animals or children" should be extended to include footballers.
7-Up must still rue its decision to spend £500,000 making Roy Keane its brand ambassador during the 2002 World Cup after the temperamental Irishman threw a major, and very public, tantrum over his national team's "lack of professionalism" and quit the team. Ireland, covered by posters of Keane at the time, suddenly seemed an uncomfortable place to be drinking a can of 7-Up.
Nike and Ben Sherman suffered a similar blow when Rio Ferdinand was handed an eight-month ban for failing to take a drugs test. Still, it's possible a canny advertiser will hit on the idea of using Rio to wish the England team good luck as they jet off to Portugal.
Drama queens and dopey defenders aside, there are bigger strategic issues about whether celeb-led campaigns can ever be as effective as integrated event marketing.
Phil Carling, the head of football at the sports marketing agency Octagon, says the problem for non-official sponsors is they can only be involved with the event vicariously. "Pepsi and Nike spend massively on creative and media but don't get access to stadia, the event marquees or the thousands of tickets that act as the basis for corporate hospitality and consumer promotions," he says.
Uefa sponsors also get exposure on public broadcasters such as the BBC but non-sponsors don't. In the UK, the BBC took 12 million of the 18 million viewers who watched the England-Germany game at Euro 2000, leaving advertisers with just six million.
Although some European public broadcasters carry ads, it's generally true spot advertisers can't get the same volume or quality of exposure as sponsors. That's on top of the fact that sponsors appear during games while advertisers have to hope they don't leak audiences during commercial breaks.
The advantages for official sponsors don't end there. Carling points out that the number of primary and secondary sponsors has been reduced at Euro 2004 to boost their share of exposure. Plus, the pulling power of the European Championship means Uefa can insist on contractual protection for commercial partners from ad-funded broadcasters.
"Uefa can control title sequences, break bumpers, broadcast sponsorships, even the first ad in the mid-match break. There's more rigorous protection from ambush marketing now than ever before," Carling says.
But Nigel Currie of the sponsorship consultancy GEM says it's impossible to block out rivals completely. "Clients who don't have official status need to be very creative and spend more money, but even if a rights holder imposes tough conditions there are outlets to exploit."
This question of legitimacy will impact on T-Mobile's battle with Vodafone.
While the former is a Euro 2004 sponsor and has its medium-term strategy geared toward the 2006 World Cup in Germany, it's best known by most soccer fans as the brand that bought us close to tears with Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf.
By contrast, Vodafone's Beckham links were strong enough to shift 50,000 Live! mobile phones in the three weeks after he began endorsing the brand.
Through Manchester United and Beckham, Vodafone also has handy entry points into Holland (via van Nistelrooy) and France (Mikael Silvestre).
As well as the core competitive battles, many will bolt on a football theme around Euro 2004. Carling, for instance, has launched its celebrity-free, fan-focused "Carling. Love football" TV ad through Leith to support its ties with English football.
Commercials involving Pele (Viagra), David Ginola (L'Oreal), Paolo Di Canio (Imperial Leather) and Hansen again (Standard Life) give us more hints for what's in store for this summer.
A wider question is what Euro 2004 can do to pull the advertising industry out of Sir Martin Sorrell's bath. At individual client level, the outlook is encouraging. Adidas is planning to increase its £100 million marketing spend by 20 per cent. And GlaxoSmithKline is increasing its spend from £79 million to £100 million this year, primarily to promote its Ribena and Lucozade brands around Euro 2004 and the Olympics.
Media owners are hoping others follow suit. Euro 2004 is a crucial event for the European sports network Eurosport, which is offering customised programming, match previews and highlights packages. If T-Mobile doesn't use its official status to lock in a deal with Eurosport, for example, there's a window for Vodafone to do so instead.
David Orman, Eurosport sales director for the US, the UK and Scandinavia, says nothing is signed as yet, but adds: "There is more of a buzz in our European offices this year. It's not as busy as Euro 2000 but definitely up on last year."
He stresses, though, that budgets are split between Euro 2004 and the Olympics in the autumn. "European and Asian clients are more interested in Euro 2004, but US budgets tend towards the Olympics. Combined, that make us optimistic across the second half of the year."