The conversations I had in Minneapolis for the Super Bowl focused on three main themes:
- Has the NFL’s popularity peaked?
- What does Fox’s “Thursday Night Football” deal mean for the league’s media landscape?
- Who will be the next ESPN president?
As this is a year in review, let’s focus on the NFL.
I’m not selling stock in the NFL; I’m holding. Yes, all week going in to the Super Bowl, a seasonlong narrative reached a crescendo: The NFL’s place in American culture is eroding and it will never have its lofty status of years ago. Those were the themes prior to a fabulous game for Super Bowl LII and will continue during the offseason.
The NFL has immense challenges: Player health and safety is a chronic concern; a 20 percent ratings erosion over two years is surprising and significant; player activism has turned off a segment of its fan base; the league’s brand has lost public trust; youth participation is at risk; and the on-field product is marred by complicated rules, penalties and pace of play. I have never had so many sports executives or casual fans express their frustration or dismay with the league than I have this year, and the league is clearly losing the PR battle.
The headlines going into the NFL’s marquee game further fueled the narrative: Reliable Sources’ weekly podcast asked, “Has The NFL Peaked?”; Bloomberg went with “NFL Advertisers Pay Record-Breaking Prices Even As Ratings Drop.” The Atlantic had “Why NFL Ratings Are Plummeting: A Two-Part Theory — Televised football has a problem with both form (television) and content (football).” On the Friday before the Super Bowl, The Wall Street Journal stated, “Ahead of Super Bowl, Poll Shows NFL Is Losing Its Core Audience.” On the Thursday before the Super Bowl, The New York Times’ Mark Leibovich had a 5,900-word piece on, “Where Does The NFL Go After A Season Of Division?” And on Super Bowl Sunday, The New York Times’ headline over Joe Drape’s column read, “‘The American Dilemma’: Why Do We Still Watch Football?” Now, that’s a tough media narrative.
I’m still a believer in the brand and the game. The sky is not falling, and the league still plays from a significant position of strength. Yes, its decision-making and crisis management should be questioned, and each year a new crisis seems to slow the league’s growth and hurt its brand. But every issue the league faces is intensely magnified unlike any other sports property in America.
The bottom line is no other U.S. sports property has such a reach or hold on the American public, and the public reaction to the Eagles’ captivating win over the Patriots showed how the sport can dominate the mainstream and social conversation in this country. And while television ratings have seen double-digit drops over the last couple of years, Rupert Murdoch feels so bullish on the brand and the immense value of its programming that he made an aggressive and shocking five-year deal for “Thursday Night Football” as one of the first moves for his “new Fox.” That’s quite an endorsement.
My colleagues say I’m a spoiled NFL fan because I’m from Vermont and maintain my strong allegiance to the Patriots. It’s easy to be a fan when your team has had an 18-year run of excellence, and you weekly watch the best coach/quarterback tandem of all time. I get that. They complain of a boring, unwatchable product — and it’s clear the product on the field must be the focus of a league office that for too long focused on reaching $25 billion in revenue.
The NFL won’t return to the viewership numbers of its heyday, but to say the league is on a swift downward spiral and in grave peril strikes me as heavy hyperbole.
In my talks with sources, here are issues that could come up over the offseason or areas the league could focus on:
LEAGUE/TEAM DYNAMIC: The undercurrent in Minneapolis was to expect changes at 345 Park Avenue over the offseason. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as during the debate over the contract extension of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, owners expressed concern about the size of the league staff — both in head count and salaries. A number of longtime employees have had the option of taking buyouts and some have, while others, like high-profile communications executive Joe Lockhart, will leave on their own. But this is an issue to watch.
The league has been on the defensive for the past couple of years over various issues, which has fed a notion of an unsettled work environment. That would be unfortunate, because a job at the NFL has long been seen as aspirational and at the pinnacle of sports. While certainly demanding, it still should be a fun, prideful place to work.
Which leads me to Commissioner Goodell, who I found comfortably in command yet consistently close to the vest during Super Bowl week. With a new five-year contract extension in hand, can Goodell somehow pivot to become a more trusted partner with the players and a more engaging face of the league? It’s too bad he didn’t agree to appear on NBC’s Super Bowl coverage, because while he would have faced difficult questions, he has proved he can handle that situation and could have used the massive platform to tout all that the league is doing. I don’t understand why he wouldn’t do that with a network partner on the game’s biggest day of the year. Also, when he is relaxed and comfortable, his personality comes through and it’s a side fans, partners, media and players should see more of.
GET PAST THE POLITICS: All of the team executives I spoke with sang from the same hymn sheet. “We have to get the anthem issue behind us.” That’s paramount to the league putting its difficult 2017 behind.
I disagree with the notion supported by many that the anthem protest didn’t hurt interest in the league or its bottom line. It did. I have countless stories of fans who turned away from the league because of the anthem issue and players protesting. I know it had a negative impact on the shield, and surveys during the season showed how the NFL had become one of the more divisive brands in American culture. Who would have believed that?
This issue has to be a priority, and with no players kneeling at the Super Bowl, it seems as if the league and players can move on. But if that story line continues to creep into next season — from the Colin Kaepernick lawsuit to what happens if outspoken free-agent Eric Reid doesn’t get a contract offer or if the U.S. president continues to make it a point of emphasis — all bets are off on the league’s return to normalcy.
BE COOL: The league is in the unenviable position of trying to market its product to everyone — looking to be relevant to its entire fan base. It’s understandable, but the marketing partners I talked to all hope the league focuses its marketing, especially on the next generation of fans. There is understandable concern of a graying fan base, so the league must work with its youth-specific partners — EA Sports, Nike, Xbox and Bose come to mind — to be more progressive in product diversification and segmented marketing.
Conversations over Super Bowl week were dominated by what EA and the league could do to tap into the esports and gaming community, and transfer the equity of that youthful demographic into other areas of their team business. Team executives differed if they support hosting live esports events on site, as one told me, “The last thing we should do is plan another event like a draft party around esports.” But using team IP digitally or through Twitch to target a younger generation is high on their wish list. It’s a new space and they admit they don’t have the answers on next steps or execution.
In another example to target youth, the jersey culture is clearly back and is a statement of social cool — look at the value the NBA and Nike have generated from its “City Edition” uniform selection, which have become a hip product segment, and one the NFL could replicate.
One final point: I can’t tell you how much the name Odell Beckham Jr. was brought up from people looking to connect with the young demo — he has real street cred in reaching today’s youth -- so the NFL hit a home run by featuring Beckham with Eli Manning on its much-praised “Dirty Dancing” ad on Super Bowl Sunday.
WHAT ELSE WAS HEARD: Ticket sales was brought up by nearly every team executive as a vital area of emphasis and focus, with many hoping the league’s new deal with Ticketmaster and StubHub providing a more open platform helps drive sales. Executives will continue to seek more information and assistance from the league office on best practices and fan identity. … A number of partners I talked to stressed the NFL needs more “stars” and “more healthy” stars — and point to the NBA’s current dynamic state. “There you have LeBron, Durant, Steph, Harden, Westbrook, all going at each other and all engaging with each other on social media — good and bad — and it just drives the interest,” one said. I see the point, but I still feel the NFL has a massive amount of star power: Brady, Russell Wilson, OBJ, Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Zeke and Zak, among others. They may not be actively engaging each other as the NBA stars do, but there are still some great stories to tell here. … Not surprisingly, the sale of the Carolina Panthers was also a part of every conversation. More talk of price than of potential bidders, with speculation ranging from $2.3 billion to the wildly optimistic $3 billion. The sale comes at a very interesting time considering the state of the league, so it’s a story you’ll want to watch closely.
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.