The Wall Street Journal came out with a piece yesterday that talked about some of the issues that the NFL is dealing with and the ways that the NFL is looking into fixing them.
Which is great.
All too often, teams and leagues end up on reactive footing due to the fact that they either don’t see the potholes in front of them or because they have taken to drinking their own Kool-Aid to the point that nothing but the buzz words and PR filters is taken as gospel.
In the terms of what the NFL is dealing with now, last night I mentioned that they have some pretty significant PR hurdles that end up becoming self inflected issues due to the fact that they try to white wash everything, even when its completely stupid to do so or irrelevant to do so.
In Matthew Futterman’s piece, we actually see them move away from just the standard issue:
“It was the election.”
“We are constantly trying to improve the game.”
“We aren’t concerned.”
Instead we see a League that is actually willing to admit where their concerns are.
Which is a start.
Let’s rundown some of the challenges that the NFL is addressing and why they all seem to be bubbling up at once.
- Declining attendance
- Declining ratings
- PR concerns around player safety
- Shorter viewing time per game
- Playoff dissatisfaction
That’s not a complete list, but it does make for a pretty substantial number of challenges for a business to be dealing with all at once.
Let’s look at this from the POV of what is the big issue…
That the NFL has very little direction outside of making money and it is coming across that way to their fans.
Which draws back to one of my operating premises, if you build something awesome…the money will come.
Not let me figure out how to maximize the money I can take and hope no one notices that I’m just digging in their pockets.
Let’s look at the NFL’s current mission statement, which is:
“To provide our fans, communities and partners the highest quality sports and entertainment in the world, and to do so in a way that is consistent with our values.”
I mean, WTF does this even mean?
Can any of you offer me up any clarity on what this really means if you are a fan? If you are a player? If you are an employee? If you are a partner?
I’m guess the answer is no.
Its like so many corporate mission statements, it sounds good in a committee, but is pretty much meaningless when it gets out into the real world.
In practice, this just says, “words, words, words.”
Because it is meaningless.
Let’s look at a couple of good ones:
Life is Good: Spreading the Power of Optimism
How about Virgin Atlantic’s?
Shouldn’t that end in an exclamation point?
Finally, what about Amazon’s:
What do all 3 of these examples have in common?
They are simple.
They are specific.
They make sense when you read them.
Back to the NFL, again…WTF does the mission statement mean?
That’s the problem.
It means nothing except we are just going to continue to find ways to try and generate more and more revenue and the only consideration we will make it how we can do that in the most anodyne manner possible.
The thing is, I’m pretty sure some PR flack from the NFL is going to hit me up and say, “you just don’t understand.”
The fact is, you see this in all the missteps the league makes.
Scrubbing the Super Bowl Opening Night interview transcripts of any mention of Trump, Goodell, and other touchy situations.
Real fans want an authentic experience, warts and all.
The over saturation of games, including the Thursday night games, which are pretty much unwatchable…and then talking about the games as if they are still the highest quality matchups of the whole year.
That’s just trying to treat your audience like they are morons.
They aren’t high quality. The sport is brutal. The players don’t have the chance to recover from the game before, put in a game plan, and practice before they turn around and play another game. That’s just a fact.
Save the Thursday games for special occasions like Opening Night, Thanksgiving, and maybe a few other times during the year.
The PR blunders around Ray Rice, DeflateGate, concussions, and other things.
These are all unforced errors brought about by arrogance and a feeling that you can treat your customers like rubes.
Talk to people with respect when a situation warrants it.
This respect issue, again, over and over and over:
- Dress code violation fines
- Fines for celebrations
- The milquetoast media sessions
On and on and on…
And, the foundation of it is right there in front of you….in that terrible excuse for a mission statement.
What if the NFL took a few minutes to create a real one, something like this:
“The NFL is America’s Game! Our mission is to spread the love of football to fans around the world.”
What do you think?
Would that change the way that business is done?
I think it would.
Because the first thing you have to remember about any business you have is that your first and only job is to create customers and keep them.
If you take your focus off the fans and the customers walking into your stadiums, arenas, and ballparks, your business isn’t going to remain healthy for long.
That’s a fact.
Right now, fans aren’t first.
They likely aren’t second.
They are probably pretty far down the list right now.
But the simple fact is that all the communities, partners, and sponsors that you have would dry up in a hot minute without the fans.
Simple, without people caring about your sport, you don’t have anything that a partner, sponsor, or community is going to care about.
You see all of this in the way that ratings are declining, tickets aren’t being used, and fans aren’t watching as long as possible.
While I think that the move to streamline the commercial breaks is smart, its still something being driven by the current TV partners and sponsors, but isn’t fan focused.
Because here’s another hard truth for the NFL and anyone that is depending on the TV money to keep flowing, people don’t consume media, sports, or anything else in the same way. So even if you streamline the delivery of your advertising to make it more palatable for your audience. If they are watching on TV, they are still likely to change the channel. So what you are likely to see isn’t that fans are staying through the commercial breaks more, but that they aren’t channel surfing as much.
A more fan focused approach might actually figure out ways that you can incorporate the sponsorships and ads into the game experience and/or simplify the way that ads run during the game, period.
That might mean that you do something like offer sponsorships for each quarter, each game, or each half as a way to lessen the ad load.
You might consider having 1 longer break for commercials during a quarter.
You might find ways to incorporate your advertisers into digital promotions and second screen use during the game, which would reward fans for their attention and give your partners and advertisers higher bang for their buck.
That’s maybe a win/win for everyone.
The biggest thing about focusing more on the fan actually doesn’t even begin with the TV. It begins with the in-game experience, and the experience of consuming the NFL as a whole.
With so much emphasis placed on fantasy football and stats at all costs, the connection to the game is going to suffer.
It used to be that you had a team, ride or die.
It used to be that team success drove your favorite player selection or some sort of quirk of personality. Now it is strictly a fantasy play.
Look, fantasy is a great way to introduce new people to your product, or to even extend the relationship. But too much of the connection between fan and game is fantasy based. Which again, is driving down all of those indicators that are present in the article.
This drive to put the fans at the center of your strategy is likely to require you to rethink every aspect of the in-game experience.
With the opening of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and the Falcons “fan first” strategy, this is probably a good place to start thinking about ways to improve your ability to bring in fans while giving them something that they want to be a part of.
Getting fans to the stadium consistently is likely to require a bottom up reinvention of the entire game-day experience.
My original NFL experiences are tailgating at Dolphins games in the 90’s. There was a carnival atmosphere to the whole proceedings. From the hours before the game, to the excitement of the game, through the end of the game…I know the production value was much lower, but the experience was far improved from beginning to end.
With the advent of so many technological advances both from an institutional standpoint, but also from a fan and individual aspect, the experience is going to be much different. But the thing is, to create an environment where the handheld devices aren’t the core of the experience but additions to the experience. To help use technology to bring the in-game experience to another level.
This enhancement can and should be at all levels…from the purchase of the tickets, to the pre-game, to the in-game, post game, and after game experiences.
You could integrate Waze or some other traffic data into your in-game app experience to help fans get to the stadium earlier.
You could partner with your local municipalities and partners to create tailgate carnivals before the game, offering a traditional tailgate experience, but also offering up new revenue possibilities if you create something that is attractive.
In South Florida, my company was one of the best nightclub and event producers in the country. Imagine what you could do in Miami with the Dolphins by opening a special tent or night club experience before our after Dolphins’ games that piggy backed on top of the partnership between the Dolphins, Uber, and Amazon.
Or, what could you do in New York where a number of fans take buses into the Meadowlands from the City?
How about changing the way that people get to the stadium?
Can you make that an experience?
What about when you enter the venue?
How is the greeting?
What is the approach to your seat like?
Lines at F&B stations?
Quality and price of F&B options?
Are you using these touch points as a way to enhance the relationship or are they just transactions?
What about the digital experience?
Have you looked into cloud technologies that will enhance the end user experience by allowing you to push content to the mobile device. While also allowing a better pulling experience for the mobile user?
What kind of content could you create that would drive fans to engage with you and your app during breaks in the action as opposed to apps and sites that you don’t control or that may distract them from the experience that you are trying to create?
There is great capability to use this not just spam your audience, but create stronger connections, and to create revenue opportunities.
This list goes on and on.
Can we make it something worth seeing?
Can we add to that experience so that the way that fans remember their leaving the game isn’t about fear of having to sit in traffic or be jostled in crowds on mass transit?
Could you use the postgame time to extend the experience?
What about after the fan has returned home?
How are you going to grow the relationship from there?
Is your social media strategy and email strategy built to drive fans to your games? And, once you have them there, keep them coming back?
I know that this is more of a question based thing, but all of these questions are relevant.
Because they all return to the idea that the NFL needs to return fans to the center of their thinking and not just in a poll tested, buzz word, bad marketing consultant type way. But in a meaningful way with the first question always being: “If I were a fan, how would I feel about this?”
Or, “If I were spending my money on this, what would make it worth my time?”
Because without asking questions like this and others about the fan’s attention, the NFL is going to continue to face many of these same issues…but as they aren’t resolved, they are likely to be much more painful and costly.