Dear NFL: Here’s A Solution to Your Ratings Problem
My name is Josh Hoffman. I'm the Chief Strategy Officer here at The Institute for Athlete Branding and Marketing.
Many times this season, I’ve heard about how you (and TV in general) are suffering from a significant ratings decline.
I’ve heard the proposed theories as to why, including: cord-cutting, injuries to popular players, political divisiveness stemming from player demonstrations, and perhaps marquee teams like the Giants, Packers and Cowboys not playing up to par. They also say people are experiencing football fatigue.
But, as much as these reasons may be forces to reckon with, you’re dropping the ball on an opportunity of which other organizations are completing taking advantage.
As you know, NFL: Ratings are synonymous with viewers’ attention, and in today’s Attention Economy, it’s a zero-sum game. In other words, if people are watching another sport, a series, a film, their aunt’s embarrassing Facebook video or anything else on or off the Internet, they can’t watch the NFL. And, it’s a virtuous cycle: The more time and attention I spend watching … say, Netflix … and the more I enjoy Netflix’s content, the more time and attention I’m going spend with Netflix — which means the less time and attention I have to give to content providers, like yourself.
Which brings me to the first of a few recommendations: Your content needs to be more lifestyle-oriented.
The most successful consumer-facing companies in the world (Apple, Disney, Red Bull, Dollar Shave Club) sell a lifestyle that fits within the identity of their target audience, especially the younger demographics (which I understand you’re having trouble attracting).
Yet, the vast majority of content I see from the NFL is strictly about football (the sport), not about the culture and lifestyle that transcends the sport. (Certainly, the NFL may already be a way of life for diehard fans, but we’re not talking about the diehards here; we’re talking about casual fans who make up most of your loss in ratings.)
One of my favorite brands, Dollar Shave Club, sells men’s grooming products, but they promote male culture and lifestyle through much of their content. To take a page out of their playbook, put more emphasis on the culture and lifestyle surrounding football (your product). This way, you’re more likely to find yourself on the winning side of the zero-sum game that is the Attention Economy.
In addition to more of a lifestyle/culture content focus, I also recommend making your content more player-centric, since the rise in popularity of fantasy sports is turning people more into fans of players, not just fans of teams. This recommendation involves two approaches:
"Hero" NFL players and (even non-player personnel).
Go out of your way to “hero” players as people, not just players, in your content. (I use the phrase “go out of your way” because clearly it is more difficult for casual fans to identify NFL players off the field, since fans almost exclusively see these players wearing helmets that obviously cover their faces.)
The more I know about a player on and off the field, the more likely I am to connect with them on a deeper level, and the more likely I am to watch a game when his team is playing, buy merchandise related to him and his team, and otherwise support him.
(Kobe Bryant was my favorite player growing up because I read his biography at a young age. It’s not a coincidence that knowing much more about Kobe, compared to other players, made him my favorite athlete, and propelled me to throw a significant amount of money and attention at him, the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA.)
Teaching players — and teams — how to “tell their story,” both on and off the field, will pay dividends for all stakeholders involved, which brings me to the second approach …
Put players in a position to succeed.
Providing proper, collaborative education, training and support to your players and their business representatives about how to leverage digital media in order to increase their popularity and fan engagement, with the end-goal of driving additional, non-football related revenues.
Unfortunately, most NFL players are not taking advantage of the Internet to strategically connect with and develop additional fans — which means they’re missing out on substantial business and financial opportunities, both now and in the future. By providing such education, training and support, you will not only form better relationships with your players, but you and your teams will also benefit from the relationships they form with their fans.
Lastly, the commissioner (and other league executives)
While there are several other recommendations I can make to your organization, I will conclude with one more topic: the often media-embattled commissioner, Roger Goodell.
It has been proven that high-profile executives who directly engage with the customers of their organizations ultimately help their organizations develop better relationships with customers. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has done a relatively nice job of providing fans a lens through which they can view parts of his on-the-job life, whereas a quick Google search of Roger Goodell shows but a Twitter account that, as of writing this open letter, hasn’t been updated in nearly two months.
The more touch-points the NFL can strategically create with its fans — through players, teams, executives, the media, et cetera — the more fans will flock to the brand, and the better ratings (and overall popularity) your sport will see.