Has The NFL Become Too Big To Change?

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By the start of the 2017 NFL season, it seems like a lot of the challenges they have been dealing with over the last few years are still playing out as ongoing points of concern. And, it makes you have to wonder if the NFL has become too big to effectively adapt and change to the demands of the current market.

ESPN dropped a piece this morning about why everyone is wrong about what is going on with the NFL.

Despite more too many blowouts.

Poor perceived QB play.

Ratings that are down.

Attendance that has been embarrassing.

We are all wrong.

Which I get it, ESPN is pushing out the contrarian POV. I pretty much make a career out of taking the opposite view of issues just because I think that there is always value in poking at conventional wisdom.

But in the case of ESPN spending a lot of page space on telling us how the statistics bore out that we are wrong…it misses the point.

In marketing and advertising, the numbers are important but people don’t typically make decisions based on numbers…they make their decisions based on emotion.

Don’t believe me, look at the Hillary Clinton campaign that built their entire operation around numbers, data, and facts to the point that the message and connection Hillary Clinton needed to make sure she pulled through wasn’t able to cut through all the other noise that surrounded the campaign.

The same playbook is running here.

ESPN may be right. The quality of play being down this year may be an aberration.

The thing is that there is a pretty solid basic rule of marketing: if someone is buying or getting your message, it is your fault and not theirs.

That’s the problem that the NFL is having right now.

They are selling something that isn’t necessarily cutting through to the people that they want to reach.

They have too many negative stories that are catching more attention than anything positive:

There is Colin Kaepernick which is a story line that has caught the attention of both conservatives and progressives for entirely different reasons.

There is the ongoing concerns about concussions.

Fall out from the handling of the Ezekiel Elliot suspension.

We could go on with the way that people probably still feel like the NFL was in the bag for the Patriots. The way so many games have been blowouts.

Again, this only 5 stories, but the accumulation is terrible for anyone and the NFL is no different.

But let’s be realistic here:

Too many people are talking about the length of games with most games stretching to 3.5+ hours now. Of which we get a little action and a lot of commercials. If you are sitting at the stadium, this experience is brutal.

When you get to the stadium, you are almost guaranteed to sit in a traffic jam of an hour or more. Not to mention how people feel “gouged” or “taken advantage” of by the prices and options of food and beverage at the stadium.

That’s why the Falcons new pricing at their stadium was such a big deal. They treated people like people and not just numbers on a spreadsheet.

Let’s count: bad story lines, bad viewing experience, bad experiences all around…what could possibly go wrong?

The NFL didn’t get here in a year or two. If you have been paying attention the decline in importance has been coming for a long time.

Really, the NFL is no different than any other big, successful business either. Market leaders are always afraid. They know that any change to the way people buy, consume, or interact with their product or service can create a groundswell of consequences that shatter their empire.

And, as humans, we are very reluctant to change…no matter what.

These are just factors at play in any organization and any industry.

And the point is that the NFL has a lot of leeway to change and regain positive storylines.

But Big Dumb Companies can’t or won’t do it. Because of the fear of change. The fear of being wrong.

The thing is that no matter if the NFL wants to recognize it or not, change is going to come and a reactive, slow moving, fear based approach to change is not going to help the league and its teams right the ship.

If I were NFL Commissioner, here’s where I would spend my time though:

Rethink how games are broadcast:

The thing with the Thursday Night Games has become a joke.

The length of games is a real issue.

The number of commercial breaks is ludicrous.

On and on and on.

We hear that the at-home experience is what is keeping fans away from the stadiums. We hear that the Red Zone is stealing viewers from actual games.

But maybe the root cause is something else like the entire way that the games are broadcast.

My 7 year old has become a huge fan of the Premier League lately and what’s awesome about the Premier League is that you know the game is about a 2 hour investment. During the World Cup, the sponsorships and advertisements are worked into the presentation of the game.

Who says that the NFL can’t find a solution that is closer to that?

The reality of modern advertising is that we find that mass ads and the overwhelming number of ads is having an adverse effect on impact. We know that more isn’t more, but we still have wed that.

Part of this is driven by poor communication between the ad industry and its clients. Part of it is trying to do brand building affinity marketing campaigns that double as ways to drive sales.

These things are endless.

Because the ad industry is facing a lot of challenges for the reason that they aren’t creating the results that their clients demand.

This is dragging the NFL down because they are tied pretty tightly to having to deliver a certain number of ad impressions, ads, and marketing opportunities.

Their customers and consumers be damned.

That has to change because it isn’t just eating at the ratings of people watching at home, but it is also eating away at the ability to get fans to come to games and consume the games at the stadium.

Step Up The Entire In-Game Experience: 

We have fallen in love with the new and shiny when it comes to stadium building and attending games. But we are still seeing that this hasn’t really solved the attendance issue.

I don’t think it is as simple as just having better F&B. Or, bigger seats. Or any of the easily answers.

I think the truth lies in somehow creating an entirely reimagined in-game experience.

I’m a believer in the idea that marketing is everything.

How that translates to the game experience is that the entire experience needs to be stepped up, from the initial contact, to the lead up to the game, the game experience, and afterwards.

Right now, we have a lot of fans that don’t go because they know they are investing 8 hours to go to an experience that is subpar.

We have fans turning away from the buying process because its convoluted, inefficient, or unclear.

Compare that to the experience at home and I’m pretty sure that if you were to really dig in, you’d find that convenience is more important, but it isn’t one thing that keeps people away.

That’s why we have to do a better job of creating an in-game experience that exceeds expectations. That makes the investment of 4-5 hours or more worthwhile. That helps build community.

When we were opening nightclubs in the 1990s, we’d try to throw the best party in town and we’d always work to reinvent the party. The same idea needs to be at play for sports. Its like Georgia Rivers from the Sydney Opera House has said in her talks, you do something amazing for your consumers today…but pretty quickly it becomes something that they expect.

That’s what we are fighting against.

So we have to keep pushing.

We have to continue to create a better, more compelling, more intriguing in-game experience and likely the biggest bang for the buck is going to be in increasing the human parts of the experience.

Drive Experiences With The Game That Are In Person:

This might mean attendance. This does mean that entire in-game experience as I’ve outlined above.

But whatever you have to do, you want to make it easier for people to touch the game, engage with the game, and really feel the game.

The Punt Pass and Kick contests are a great way to get kids playing early.

Having NFL street fairs and events in NFL cities is another way.

Finding ways to make the games accessible to fans of all types is another.

Creating experiences where people get a chance to see practices, meet players, whatever…the best remedy for any form of apathy is to get contact with your customer base.

When I was a kid in South Florida, the Panthers used to hold their practices at a rink in Coral Springs…you could go and see the players up close. This helped the team’s early success in winning over fans.

The Heat used to hold training camp on the campus of FAU. You could get up close and personal with the players.

Everything you do, everywhere you go…you have to look for new and interesting ways to connect with and touch the fans.

It doesn’t matter if most of the revenue comes from the TV money. If people are tuned out and not engaged with the product, the TV money can easily go away.

That’s why contact with people as much as possible is a huge need.

A nimble mindset is going to be needed to tackle these problems. But the problem may be the size of the NFL. Big companies don’t always take swift action, even if they want to…and that makes them easy targets to be knocked down.

BTW, if you like this stuff and the stuff I usually post, I do a Sunday email that talks all about value, connection, and humans. You can get that for free by sending me an email at dave @ davewakeman.com


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