The NFL: a Tough Brand to Beat
The Dallas Cowboys started this season’s training camp in a media storm about the moral character of the team. A day later, the team cut wide receiver Lucky Whitehead after allegations of shoplifting emerged. The day after that the allegations against Lucky were dropped. Social media was alive with talk of the management’s hypocrisy and double standards. Certainly, Lucky Whitehead caused the Dallas Cowboys a few headaches since joining the team in 2015. However, everyone saw his release as nothing more than cynical PR expediency. After all, everyone knew that Lucky’s days were numbered with the arrival of Ryan Switzer.
So, what’s any of this got to do with marketing? Well, the Dallas Cowboys is the world’s most valuable sports franchise at $4.2 billion. According to a Forbes valuation, the Cowboys brand is worth an estimated $577 million. Anything that detracts from the organisation’s five stated values of integrity, respect, teamwork, commitment and excellence has the potential to harm the brand.
All about the Brand
In recent years, the NFL (National Football League) has been dogged by one scandal after another. Murder, suicides, drugs, animal cruelty, cheating, domestic violence, and the concussion controversy have brought the game into disrepute. Surely, such as catalogue of crimes and misdemeanours would negatively impact on the NFL’s brand, reputation and value? Apparently not. Together, the league’s 32 teams are worth an eye-watering $75 billion. The NFL's total revenues surpassed $13 billion during 2016, up more than 50% from 2010. It seems nothing and no one can stop this juggernaut. But, how and why does the NFL defy marketing logic that says reputation is inextricably linked to brand value?
Perhaps it’s no surprise the NFL’s logo is a shield, after all, it’s continually defending the often indefensible. The NFL’s stated mission is to provide the highest quality sports and entertainment. Well, the quality might be questionable, but it’s certainly entertaining. One of the league’s values is resilience, which it describes as the ability to overcome adversity, turn losses into lessons, and adapt to changing circumstances. In this case, few people could argue the NFL doesn’t live by its values. Certainly, wealthy, privileged sports personalities should be held to the highest standards. However, their offenses often carry their own unique punishments. Those found guilty in criminal cases will often find themselves facing excessively long jail terms and 32 states still apply the death penalty.
Interestingly, although the league appears a hotbed of villainy, the high profile of NFL players actually distorts the true picture. In reality, NFL players are less likely to be convicted of a crime than men of a similar age in the general population. Crime rates among NFL teams have also been falling year-on-year since 2006 according to NFLArrest.com. Nevertheless, with 84 incidents since 2000, domestic violence is the league’s third most common crime.
The NFL continues to change with the times and is quick to leverage new technologies and opportunities both on and off the field. The rules of the game have continually changed and evolved since 1932. A quick look at the NFL’s Football Operations website illustrates the many, varied reasons for different rule changes, such as making the game faster moving, more entertaining and safer for the players. The NFL has been quick to pounce on social media sites like Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube to increase its fan base with a younger demographic and increase engagement. The NFL generates vast amounts of original content streamed across multiple platforms. Digital media also plays an important role in the league’s international expansion plans – more of that a little later.
An estimated 32 million Americans spend around $500 per person or $15 billion on playing fantasy sports like the NFL, and that’s excluding the ad revenue from the hosting sites. Fantasy American football has grown a staggering 270% since 2003. The NFL runs its own fantasy league and any licensed use of the league’s products generates extra revenue. Initially, it seemed that fantasy NFL was attracting a new TV audience, but viewing figures from last season (2016/2017) show quite a substantial fall in TV ratings, and the trend is downward (about a million fewer viewers per game during the regular season over three years). It’s too early to tell, but this could be a worry, as the real value of fantasy football to the NFL is to keep fans engaged. National TV sponsorship provides two-thirds of the league’s revenue.
The growth of digital media platforms has almost certainly helped pro-football’s international expansion plans, but only up to a point. People might question why the NFL chose to expand into the UK after recent failures while Mexico and other parts of South America would seem the smarter option. Although Mexico has more than three times the fan base compared to the UK, it simply doesn’t have the modern stadium infrastructure required by today’s game.
The league also did its homework when it came to analysing the data on the growth potential of the UK, and the numbers looked promising. However, many logistical challenges remain, and it’s extremely unlikely the UK will get an NFL franchise anytime soon. The international series remains in its infancy and might never grow strong enough to make it truly viable. Where social media, the Internet and cable TV have really helped is making the game far more accessible to foreign fans all-year-round. Back in the 1980s, the NFL was lucky to get an hour on Channel 4 during the season. Nowadays, every team in the league has its own mobile app, dedicated multimedia website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. The content never stops coming.
She-conomy & Merchandising
According to the she-conomy website, 44% of NFL TV viewers are women, which has grown from 34% in 2011. More women watch the Super Bowl than the Oscars ceremony. Spending on NFL women’s apparel has increased 76% since 2010. Having identified women as a key and growing market, the NFL was quick capitalise on the opportunity. The league has run extensive advertising campaigns in women’s fashion magazines, online, in-store and using pop-up shops. They’ve recruited strong female role models such as tennis star Serena Williams to promote the cause.
Since 2009, the league has supported the American Cancer Society and the National Breast Cancer Awareness campaign. Special pink NFL merchandise is widely available throughout October with all proceeds going to the American Cancer Society. Overall, pro football makes around $3 billion per year from merchandising, and the growth of the female fan base looks set to keep the profits rolling in.
Adaptable & Innovative
The NFL is the most successful sports league in history. The Super Bowl remains one of the most watched TV events worldwide. In comparison, the UK’s Premier League generates less than half the revenue of the NFL. However, pro football’s Teflon shield might not be quite as tough as it first appears. TV viewing figures have started to slip. Women make up half the league’s US fan base but the NFL has done little to banish the spectre of domestic violence from within its ranks.
Digital technology and the rise of fantasy football have been a boon to the sport, engaging a whole new generation. It’s estimated that fantasy players consume 40% more of the league’s content than non-players. That’s great, but only if it translates into more TV viewers, which doesn’t seem to be happening.
Since the 1980s, the NFL has been keen to expand internationally. Early ventures into the European market floundered. With the draw of regular season action, the NFL International Series seems to have more long-term potential. The prospect of a London franchise makes for good headlines, but is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
The NFL is far from the perfect brand, but it’s pretty good at adjusting to customer sentiment most of the time; it’s willing to embrace new technologies; and it continues to innovate with the game on the field, and the whole paraphernalia that is pro football.