A look at the current state of the NFL
NFL Issues: What’s the future look like?
All sports leagues should have these problems. While the NFL issues range from protests to falling ratings to concerns over concussions, the league still remains the most popular sports league in America. Its ratings dwarf all others, and so do its revenues.
Compare the numbers with the NBA, the nation’s second-most popular sports league.
- An average national NBA game draws about 1.5 million viewers
- A typical Sunday night NFL game attracts 19 million viewers
If you don’t think that’s fair, the lowest rated national NFL game of week 7 still drew 11 million viewers.
- The NBA finals from earlier this year drew an average viewership of 19.4 million
- The Super Bowl last February drew 111.3 million viewers
- Revenue for the NBA totaled $4.8 billion
- Revenue in the NFL in 2016 totaled $13 billion
So, if you’re the NBA, Major League Baseball, the NHL or even soccer’s Premier League, you’re saying: Boo hoo. We really emphasize with those NFL issues.
How will recent NFL issues affect the league’s future?
The question, however, is how long that’s going to last? Is the NFL in true trouble or is this simply a bump in the road? Let’s look at the issues from a brand perspective. Because the key to ensuring long-term growth is fostering emotional loyalty, building on your brand’s equities and envisioning what the landscape looks like in the future.
Like anything, sports transition. In the era of the Greatest Generation, the most popular sports were baseball, boxing and horse racing. In about that order. Football was popular only on the college level, while basketball and hockey stood as regionally popular.
So what changed?
How the NFL came out on top
There were several changes, most of them related to television. The NFL arrived prominently with the airing of the 1958 NFL Championship game on NBC with an estimated 45 million viewers watching the overtime thriller. (Baltimore Colts 23, New York Giants 17.) From that point on, the NFL slowly became a ratings juggernaut. Especially after Pete Rozelle negotiated large TV contracts years later that essentially made the networks partners with the NFL.
Baseball remains popular but has trouble being as relevant of others because its pace doesn’t align the fast-paced nature of our times. (And the games are getting longer.) Horse racing evolved into a local sport with only the Triple Crown making national news.
Boxing is the more relevant test case. While the sport was enormously popular before the 1970s, it reached it zenith with the emergence of a dream heavyweight class. Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton fought a sort of round-robin tournament among themselves and other boxers, creating must-see prime time viewing.
What happened to boxing?
Then boxing got greedy. Promoters, sensing a quick buck, aired the biggest fights on pay-per-view, bypassing networks and feeding their pockets instantly. The problem? Few fights were worthy of shelling out $100 to view for the general public and, therefore, the sport itself became less relevant. No could see the fights. In fact, mixed martial arts have emerged as a more relevant sport for the American public because it’s actually broadcast on television. And you don’t feel cheated.
The NBA, meanwhile, was drowning in a cesspool in the late 70s when cocaine use was rampant and playoff games were aired by tape delay late at night. It wasn’t until new commissioner David Stern cleaned up the league, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird brought exciting team play into the mix and Michael Jordan arrived that the NBA gained national relevancy.
What does this say about the NFL and other leagues? What market forces are at play that affect them? Can those NFL issues be overcome?
This season has been one issue after another
The 2017 season has been a long list of NFL issues. Ratings are down across all networks but ESPN’s Monday Night Football (go figure) for the second straight year. Many blame the national anthem protests, but there are other factors to consider.
The sport has lost some fans due to its violent nature. Or, more accurately, the more we learn about CTE and its effects on players, the more some fans have simply left the sport. In addition, the NFL has become overly saturated. Even if you don’t have DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket or the NFL Network’s Red Zone, you have a game on Thursday, three on Sunday and another on Monday.
But here’s the rub. Ratings for college football are up. So are fans just simply not as concerned about CTE for college players as they are for NFL ones? How many college games can you watch on a typical Saturday? Is it the protests?
Truthfully, the primary reason for the recent spate of NFL issues is its brand has become a fucking joke.
What does the NFL stand for anymore?
Let’s run through what the NFL has faced the last few years beyond the protests. Suspending Ray Rice only two games after a video surfaced of him hitting his girlfriend in an elevator. (It was later extended to, basically, eternity because of public backlash.) Laughably mishandling Deflategate. Disciplining players in the most haphazard fashion. Learning the league hid conclusions about the long-term effects of CTE for years.
In a nutshell, there are many NFL issues. The league has long positioned itself as “The Shield,” which meant a devoted togetherness akin to the military. (Which could be part of the reason why so many owners, in particular, are angry over the anthem protests.)
The key to stealing market share is aligning your brand with the highest emotional intensity in the market – within context. In the case of the NFL, that means aligning the brand with the most emotional reasons why someone would watch. Is it because the NFL is like family? Is it because it has stars?
Compared to the NBA, the NFL is lost. The pro basketball league doesn’t have the numbers of the NFL, but its ratings and revenues keep growing.
The difference between the NFL and the NBA
If there’s a difference embedded into each brand, it’s that the NBA is welcoming and inclusive. It was one of the first leagues to embrace social media and remains the best at it. The first crisis faced by commissioner Adam Silver was over racist comments made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling that weren’t all that different than what Houston Texans owner Bob McNair implied last month.
The difference? Silver and other owners worked to have Sterling ousted, forcing him to sell his team before the players revolted. The NFL? It said nothing. Did nothing. And now Goodell faces backlash from some owners because he’s not forcing players to stand for the anthem.
For a fan, the NBA is fun. The NFL is hard work.
There are signs NFL issues can be overcome, even as one PR disaster after another keeps impeding progress. At least Goodell and some owners have actually met with a coalition of players and are scheduling more meetings. (Even if McNair’s comments almost blew the whole thing up.) Celebrations are now allowed after scoring a touchdown, and some have been quite clever and fun.
Who should the league emulate?
There’s also one other unlikely hero on the horizon that will make a difference. Tony Romo. Yes, the ex-Cowboy quarterback turned CBS broadcaster.
Stay with us here.
People don’t watch sports for the announcers. They watch them for the games. But the announcing in the NFL has become enormously stodgy. Even NBC’s Cris Collinsworth, probably the best analyst on the TV, can get downright monotonous. Don’t even get us started on other ex-players and coaches who basically describe a play you can see for yourself. “And he turns the corner here and Johnson makes the tackle.”
There’s also a lack of honesty because ex-players and coaches either don’t want to criticize other players or coaches. Or they’re just looking for the latest “hot take” that makes them seen controversial. Whether they believe it or not is beside the point.
What the NFL should mean
Meanwhile, the NBA has personalities who are just that. They are entertaining, not afraid to criticize or applaud. They are honest, fun and insightful. Inside the NBA on TNT is simply the best pre-game show on television. Charles Barkley is the most entertaining and honest analyst in the business. The three-team announcing crew of Mike Brean, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson on ABC (and ESPN) is simply the most insightful group in broadcasting.
The NFL? You get Jon Gruden’s pale imitation of John Madden. (“I like this guy. He’s a football player.) You get Troy Aikman, who has said something memorable at least zero times in his 15-year broadcasting career.
And now comes Romo.
His enthusiasm is infectious. He calls plays before they happen. He actually describes why a play worked and why one didn’t. No one is more emphatic about strategy, knowing the correct decision to take minutes before the situation arrives.
Isn’t that what the NFL should emulate? Enthusiasm. Strategy. Being meaningful.
Embracing enthusiasm, strategy and meaning is the definition of spectacular branding. Despite the NFL issues, the league remains numero uno among all American sports. But as we’ve seen from the past, things change. Don’t become boxing. Don’t become horse racing. Even don’t become baseball.
The NFL needs to change or everyone else will change without it.