If your screens are still filled with football a month after the Super Bowl, it’s because the NFL is trying to turn the league into a 24/7, all-season river of content.
In an age of media disruption, the world’s most powerful sports enterprise is charting a digital strategy that it hopes will transcend the seemingly irreversible decline of its mainstay, broadcast TV.
According to a study by RBC Capital Markets, the NFL earns US$3.2 billion in profit a year — more than the NBA, NHL and MLB combined. That’s largely because it dominates old media like no other sport. Last month’s Super Bowl was the 10th most watched TV program in history, even though ratings were down 7% from the previous year.
But as traditional broadcast audience age, the league is branching into new channels at every turn.
“We’re training everyone with ubiquity,” says Mary Ann Turcke, the Canadian media executive who last year became president of NFL Networks and head of the league’s digital operations.
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While the NFL’s digital stream is still small — 5% of its total audience — it’s growing at 25% a year.
To maintain those growth rates, the league will need a lot more content like Good Morning Football, the NFL Network’s flagship morning program aimed at millennials, and All or Nothing, its reality drama series on Amazon Prime.
Turcke’s goal: “interesting football content that keeps people in the football ecosystem.”
She spoke recently at RBCDisruptors, our regular series on innovation and digital disruption. Here’s some of what she shared about the world’s most successful sports league and how it’s trying to disrupt itself on the digital playing field:
1. Keep It Fun and Surprising, the Juice of Reality TV
No matter the platform, nothing in content is as powerful as surprise. For the NFL, that includes teams that go from last to first, like this year’s Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, and players who make viral plays, like Eagles quarterback Nick Foles catching a touchdown in the big game. Turcke says the adrenaline rush of surprising moments like that is still the juice of big audiences. “Sports is the first reality TV produced. It’s live. It’s real.”
2. Try Every Channel in the Playbook
Twitter now carries NFL video year-round. Its Periscope app features pre-game coverage. SnapChat produces live stories for every NFL game, including the Super Bowl when it was Verizon’s top social channel. And Facebook is sharing abbreviated game highlights. The league’s most ambitious partnership, though, may be Thursday Night Football with content-hungry Amazon. Thursday games have proven to be a big draw for millennials, with the league promoting “your weekend starts here” and trick plays like “colour rush” uniforms that add visual spark to screens. The league is less concerned, for now, about the revenue model, believing it can continue to negotiate the value of its content with platform companies — Amazon, Facebook, Twitter — as it proves its new engagement model.
3. Always Protect Your Lead
It’s an old adage in business, but the value difference between first and second is greater than between second and the rest. The NFL knows that better than anyone. Its fans, advertisers, sponsors, even owners are willing to pay a big premium to be part of America’s game because it continues to be the biggest draw for autumn audiences. Which means broadcasters will continue to spend disproportionately for the rights to games. In fact, the bidding may get more intense as the supply of mass-market draws dwindles.
4. Build Business Models Around Players, Not Just Teams
Few businesses have a more intense and loyal fan following, and the NFL is building on that by spreading what it calls “fandom” to individual athletes. It’s a page from the NBA’s playbook, although not easy in a “football is family” culture that has puts team over player. Even harder when players spend most of their screen time masked by helmets and lying in piles of players. The NFL believes it can use other channels to encourage athletes to develop their own brands to seize on North America’s celebrity culture. Case in point: Tom vs. Time, Tom Brady’s web reality TV show.
5. Go Global, Even If It’s All-American
America’s game is going where the sport has never gone before, taking another page from the NBA. One difference: basketball is played on every continent, and is a big part of the Olympics, while the NFL is and always will be American. It’s not just the rules of the game that are foreign in every other country; the NFL’s patriotic pulse thumps even louder in an America First world. Ex-pats will always be a core fan base overseas, but Turcke thinks the league’s growing celebrity factor can add to foreign markets. Thanks to a TV deal with Sky, the NFL’s ratings last years in the United Kingdom were up 60%. “The more people around the world watch football, the better we are.” Turcke says. “We have to go where they are and reverse-engineer the monetization model underneath it.”
6. Make the Physical and Digital Experience Work Together
The NFL is building its next generation audience around physical and digital experiences. Billion-dollar stadiums in Dallas, Las Vegas and Los Angeles aren’t just pleasure palaces. They’re anchors for business models that include residential developments, retail complexes and entertainment zones that can pull ever-growing digital audiences into the leisure economy. Even on game days, digital audiences thrive on the live experience, following fans at games or just catching the viral buzz of an event. It’s the human power of sport. “I hope no predictive model ever puts a name on it,” Turcke says.
7. Always Watch the Blindside
Concussions, domestic violence, #takeaknee; the NFL has taken a brand beating, much of it self-inflicted. Turcke, in her rookie year with the league, says she learned to work with teams and fans who are intensely loyal to the sport, even if the greater issues of gender-based violence and racial profiling remain unresolved. The league is more acutely aware of its social challenges, she says, thanks in part to the much bigger digital audiences it’s building at home and abroad. But as it discovered in the national anthem debate, which split its fan base in two, the burden of America’s game is it’s one of the few threads that still stitches together red states with blue. That may become a greater burden as it tries to build its audience in new markets and with new generations.
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