SBJ/May 7-13, 2012/Marketing and Sponsorship

Die-hard NFL fans put commissioner through Q&A paces

Terry Lefton
We like to believe that we’ve experienced some devoted fans in our trips across the nexus of sports and marketing. By now, we know instinctively that “fan” is short for “fanatic” and that their addiction is what drives a sports economy estimated by this magazine at $194.6 billion.

Occasionally that truth is revealed to us in far more meaningful ways than by the legions of face painters, or those who populate the stands in various states of undress during arctic chills. Such was the case recently when the hardest of hard-core NFL fans gathered on the morning of the NFL draft’s third day for Commissioner Roger Goodell’s latest fan forum. There were almost as many different NFL team colors on display as at the league’s nearby NFL pop-up store.

We’ve never seen a Houston Texans jersey in New York City before, much less before 9 a.m. on a Saturday, but that’s the passion of the NFL’s heaviest users, off to see the Wizard of Rog.

They came from all corners of the NFL universe for a chance to chat with RG1.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell answers questions at a fan forum during draft weekend.
Photos by: DAVID DRAPKIN
There was the Seattle season-ticket holder with his young son wearing matching Seahawks jerseys. His dad said that his boy was attending his third draft, “the first one was in utero.”

Had the tyke been to any Seahawks games yet? “He goes to all of them,” the father said.

Well, who wouldn’t want to change diapers during the two-minute offense?

At the other end of the age spectrum was 80-year-old James Job, an original Kansas
City Chiefs season-ticket holder, who said that those 50 years, only one of which ended with a Super Bowl victory, were filled with considerably more joy than frustration. Surely, the same sort of idealism was shared by those like the Lions devotee attending his 16th straight draft.

Or Gary Stiffler, enough of a Browns die-hard (no Super Bowl appearances, last championship 1964) that he flies to Cleveland
from his suburban Boston home to use the Browns season tickets he’s owned since 1979.

It was about the 20th time Goodell has convened fans for this informal bit of market research. Around 80 of them gathered on the same Radio City Music Hall stage where the NFL’s newest standard-bearers had undergone their initiation rites two days prior. There were fans who’d won local team contests, and were rewarded with trips to New York with the right to announce their team’s fourth-round draft pick; a collection of “Draft Diehards” who’d attended every day of the draft years ago, when it went deep into the night; and some who’d bought the “NFL On Location” draft packages.

As you’d expect, from that group, there was no shortage of love for the titular head of America’s favorite spectator sport. Still, the assembled gave the commish a decent workout during a 77-minute Q&A before the fourth round.

A fan asked why TD celebrations of the type popularized by Terrell Owens when he autographed a football or danced with pompoms were banned. His antics “were all we used to talk about on Mondays.” “Why is it the ‘No Fun League’?” Goodell was asked, a question many fans have posed rhetorically.

“They can become more of a sideshow and become unsportsmanlike,” answered Goodell, citing the Victor Cruz salsa as an acceptable celebration. “When you cross the line and taunt, potentially, another player, that’s not what we’re all about.”

Still, after the forum, he was musing privately about perhaps ways to re-tweak the celebration rule.

“You hear the issues you need to focus on,” said Goodell, when asked about the reasons behind the fan forums. Certainly, there’s a PR rationale, but Goodell cited recent changes in overtime scoring rules as an example of a change that came out of one of these gatherings.

We also learned where there wasn’t flexibility. Goodell told a 16-year Sunday Ticket subscriber that paying extra for NFL programming doesn’t mean you won’t be subject to local blackouts. “Our real issue is how to eliminate blackouts,” he said.

With a mixture of issues off the field and between the yard markers, the fan group asked Goodell about nearly every NFL topic of substance.

Browns fan Stiffler asked about expansion. “Right now, we have no plans to expand,” Goodell answered. “You make a very good point about oversaturation. We don’t want to have football every night.”

What about eliminating the Pro Bowl, queried a female fan, noting she turned it off at halftime. “That just was not football,” Goodell agreed. “There’s frustration on how to make it a competitive game … quite honestly, if we can’t have that, I’d rather not play it.”

There were venue concerns from season-ticket holders, one of whom told the commissioner that NFL stadiums are “not for children … there are too many people drinking and drunk.”

Goodell said “it’s something we have to do a better job at,” adding that he took his 13-year-old niece to a playoff game away from the sanctity of the suites a few years ago and it was not necessarily a wholesome family experience. Summoning security with texting programs and a fan conduct initiative have improved things, Goodell insisted.

Naturally, different fans have different concerns. Less than three days after Nike’s new NFL jerseys went on sale for the first time, a young Miami Dolphins fan was intent on finding out when he’ll see new alternate-color jerseys.

A woman earnestly asked whether the league was providing sufficient life-skills programs for its younger players, then followed with, “As a Redskins fan, I just wanted to know if there is legitimate justification for the Dallas Cowboys to exist.” Goodell laughed along with the crowd, and answered her initial inquiry.

A common complaint was “paying regular-season prices” for exhibition games. “We’re trying to figure out how to improve the quality, and the best way to do that is to reduce the number of preseason games by two and add two more regular-season games,” Goodell said.

Will the kickoff be eliminated? Goodell says no, but added that it’s a balancing act. “The changes we made did dramatically reduce injuries so it worked … but we also recognize it took an exciting play to a large extent out of the game,” he said.

If there’s a common complaint from the NFL’s most devoted, it’s a notion that the league is taking the violence out of a game that has been its hallmark. “It’s supposed to be a tough sport for tough men,” pleaded Mike Stein of Jacksonville. “You’re alienating a segment of the fan base.”

It’s another balancing act, Goodell advised. “We don’t want to take that out. … Certain techniques lead to injuries. We want it to be physical, but it doesn’t have to be vicious.”

Giants fan Dennis Ortiz asked about making the NFL stadium experience as good as HDTV at home. Goodell said the answer is to make the in-stadium experience comparable with improved bandwidth and replays, even of controversial plays, which he says will be in place for next season.

Afterward, there were Goodell autographs for all. A woman with ideas on how the NFL could attract more female fans was paired off with CMO Mark Waller. In the end, some of the NFL’s heaviest users — the proverbial 20 percent of customers that account for 80 percent of sales — were sated, happy and perhaps further bonded to the NFL, if that’s possible.

“It brings the commissioner down to our level, shows he can relate, and lets us get a feel for what he goes through,” said Fuad Sahouri, a Redskins season-ticket holder. “For myself also, it was a humbling experience.”

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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