With the NFL poised to celebrate its 100th anniversary, it is now undeniably “America’s Game,” if not its national pastime. Undoubtedly, this season will be a celebration of the past, as well as a positioning of the future as the league prepares to enter its second century in existence.
And while its competitor leagues may be envious of the NFL’s pervasive hold on society, it’s not all blue skies for the overlords of the gridiron. In recent years, the “Shield” has been scathed by several important issues, including player protests, domestic violence, concussion protocols, and attacks from the White House.
With all that to unpack, here are a few of the key storylines being actively addressed or warily monitored from the corner offices of Park Avenue and within the board rooms of all 32 NFL teams as we collectively count the ticks until Thursday night’s opening kick-off…
Despite most teams filling their stadiums with pre-sold season ticket holders, attendance across the NFL declined by 0.5 percent in 2018 (an eight-year low), reflecting the fact the league finds itself on the front lines of the constant battle between the cost, yet allure, of the live fan experience versus the convenience of watching on the big screen and from the comfort of the couch.
That said, fans are still tuning in, as the NFL continues to hold the crown as the most powerful broadcast property in entertainment. In fact, 2018 was a bounce back year from a TV ratings standpoint (after two consecutive years of decline in 2016 and 2017), with eight of 2018’s top 10 most-viewed TV shows being NFL games, with NBC’s Sunday Night Football laying claim to top prime time TV show for the eighth year running.
Add into the mix various streaming options and social/digital extensions, and an entire ecosystem of content is available to sate the interest and curiosity of NFL fans while deepening their level of engagement.
Speaking of fans… at a recent sports industry event a leading marketer was quoted as saying, “Gen Z is just an enigma.” While it may be a sentiment shared by some, the NFL is tackling the challenge of establishing relationships with this next generation of fans, announcing earlier this week an official TikTok account to extend their reach and expand their media strategy.
The TikTok platform will put the NFL at ground zero of where teens are today, featuring packaged highlights, sideline moments and behind-the-scenes content curated with the Gen Z consumer in mind with the hope of addressing the fact the league has been losing ground with younger demographics who are watching less network television and playing less of the sport, as well.
Beyond the latest social media platform add, NFL leadership is also reconsidering the game day experience through the lens of Gen Z, and what is important to them, specifically carving out shared spaces to create a more social and interactive atmosphere in venue, more ancillary events around the game itself and continually enhancing the technological aspects and connectivity capabilities of their stadiums.
Making a Difference:
Earlier this year the NFL announced their Inspire Change initiative, designed to support various causes, including criminal justice reform, improving police relations and educational progress. More recently, the campaign received a burst of publicity when a partnership with Jay-Z/Roc Nation was announced to support the program. Further details for the upcoming season have started to be shared, including concerts and mentorship programs as well as both an Inspire Change apparel line and Songs of the Season music collaboration, both of whose proceeds will go to support the efforts of Inspire Change.
This entire campaign is the most notable and substantive step taken by the NFL to address the ongoing player unrest related to social issues and racial injustices that NFL players and fans have rallied around—and its impact bears watching as the season unfolds.
Legal Sports Betting:
The increased spread of legal sports betting at the state level across the U.S., with 10 states now offering gambling on sports and another eight having passed legislation to do so, has created intrigue as to how it will drive partnership rights at the league level, sponsorship revenue at the team level and advertising dollars for broadcast partners via new programming and content, not to mention to what extent it can address the aforementioned fan engagement challenges.
As the nation’s most bet upon sport, it’s been somewhat surprising that the NFL has employed a relatively conservative game plan when it comes sports gambling, however with the NFL estimated to make more than $2.3 billion from betting, it makes sense that the league wants to take a measured approach to ensure they get it right.
However, with more providers entering the marketplace and new programming being rolled out by broadcasters (along with the merging of two into one announced earlier this week) it’s clear that betting is not only out of the shadows, but will become an ever-growing aspect of the NFL experience.
But, Who’s Next?:
Beyond the SI covers and jersey sales—and declarations of “feeling dangerous”—are the long-beleaguered Cleveland Browns, with the addition of more weapons around transcendent quarterback Baker Mayfield, finally ready to translate hype into wins and make an impact both on the field of play and in popular culture? The NFL is longing for some of the swagger that a Mayfield-led team possesses—not to mention an heir apparent to the G.O.A.T in Foxboro, MA, but results trump talk, and wins mean more than jersey sales.
If not the Mayfield-led Browns, then who? Will reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes, who has already translated his on-field brilliance into a degree of Madison Avenue success, ascend to the next level? And what kind of rookie season will number one draft pick Kyler Murray have in the Arizona desert? Or will it be someone else like Dak Prescott in Dallas or Russell Wilson in Seattle?
As we spend this autumn celebrating the history and heritage of the NFL, reliving our favorite moments and the pioneers who built this game to the pinnacle of the professional sports landscape in America, it will be with the knowledge that the stewards of the sport are looking forward. The ongoing evolution of this premier platform continues to present myriad opportunities for brands to not only insert themselves in the conversation, but enhance the fan experience, as well.