Now that the dust has settled for most of us from SuperBowl LII, I’d like to take the opportunity to express my thoughts about the declining NFL brand. This article is not for the purpose of starting (or continuing) a discussion. It’s simply my thoughts as a marketer and a now part-time fan on various aspects of the NFL brand. Specifically, on why the brand of the NFL has decreased in popularity over the last decade or so. Feel free to disagree or point out inaccuracies in my facts, perceptions, or logic. I’m open to it, and I hope the NFL is as well.
When I was a kid, we played yard ball and street ball all. the. time. I wasn’t very good, but I liked the competition. My dad once tried to convince me to try out for my high school team as a kicker. I could kick a football a really long way, but for some reason I didn’t want to suit up and put on a helmet to kick a ball. It was during my pre-teen and teen years that I fell in love with pro football.
Every Sunday, that’s where I was: in front of the rabbit-eared TV, watching on channel 2, 5, or 11, depending on who had the games at 1PM and 4:30PM every Sunday. Monday Night Football was my favorite, and then they introduced Thursday night football! What could be better! Those were the days. I loved watching football. Madden, Summerall, Cosell, Gifford taught me and brought even the most boring games to life.
As it turns out, my Sunday School teacher of the past 2 decades played middle linebacker for the bad boy Oakland Raiders back in the day. He played for Madden. He won a SuperBowl!
NFL = No Fun League
For me, it started more than a decade ago, when the NFL refs starting throwing flags when the players celebrated a touchdown in the end zone. For those of you who remember, I think these celebrations culminated with the “Ickey Shuffle”, a dance by then Cleveland Browns running back Ickey Woods. It was a silly dance. There were many other such celebrations, and for some reason, the NFL thought these players were going too far in their celebratory antics, so they started penalizing the teams. It started with the refs throwing flags, and progressed fo fines and suspensions.
Ridiculous. Football is a game, played (mostly) by kids in their twenties, and some in their 30s. And Tom Brady, the first 40-year-old QB to start a SuperBowl and the only QB to ever throw for 505 yards, 3 TDs, and no interceptions and lose a game. That game happened to be the SuperBowl. That’s payback for crushing the Falcons’ dreams last year. But I digress.
Kids play games. Yes, this game is a multi-billion-dollar brand, but you know what? The fans LOVED the Ickey Shuffle, and all the other end zone dances. It was at the zenith of the NFL’s ban on TD celebrations that the NFL became the “No Fun League.” It’s only gotten worse since then, and that was well over a decade ago.
OK, I just verified that Ickey Woods played from 1988 – 1991, so we’re now talking a quarter century ago. Dang. Regardless, let the kids celebrate. This is entertainment, right?
Too Too Picky Perfect
Part of the fun and frustration of any sport is the refs. Some are good. Some are bad. They’re all human. My aforementioned Sunday School teacher, when he was suited up in black and silver, referred to them as “the little guys in stripes”. They were, and to a certain extent still are, part of the game, but as pro sports have matured, they’ve systematically moved to instant replay and officials in New York making crucial calls for games in Atlanta or San Diego or Buffalo.
Are they more accurate? Maybe. Maybe they’re too accurate. What? Yes, too accurate. In trying to get everything just perfect, it is my opinion that they’ve gone too far. I’ll use two plays in SuperBowl 52 to illustrate my point. Both happened to be TD plays for the Eagles. The first was the Eagles’ final touchdown. Here’s the video, shared on Twitter because the NFL doesn’t allow people to embed their video from YouTube in a blog like this. More on that later.
What happened here? Ultimately, the play was ruled a touchdown. However, it took more than 5 minutes of deliberation for officials in NY to rule that “the receiver had become a runner and so the fact that he briefly lost possession of the ball when he landed in the end zone, before recovering possession of the ball, was not part of the process of a reception, which would have necessitated that the receiver maintain complete possession of the ball even after he hit the ground after breaking the plane of the end zone, thus completing the process of a reception.”
OY! Really? He caught the ball, took 3 steps, then leaped across the goal line. Touchdown. Next?
This incessant deliberation (“does he complete the process?!?”) makes the call utterly perfect, but ruins the flow of the game, the joy (or devastation) of the fans, and the impact of the referees on the game, since the referees didn’t actually make this call. This is sports by committee, and it sucks.
The next example is similar in that it involves a catch for an Eagles’ touchdown. In my opinion, the receiver clearly caught the ball in the end zone and took 2 steps before crashing out of the end zone. It was during that crash out of the end zone that the ball was briefly not completely solidly in the control of the receiver. But he never dropped it. Here’s the play.
The refs on the field collaborated, and called it a touchdown. But the NFL took the call away from the refs who were standing less than 10 feet from the play, and put it in the hands of “they guys in the booth”, who again took more than 5 minutes to deliberate whether or not this play was a touchdown. Indeed, Chris Collinsworth, one of the announcers, made his own call, saying he would not have given the Eagles a touchdown. Once again, the league ruined the flow of the game, the joy of the teams, and the jubilation of the fans, and removed the referees from the game.
Football is a game. Let the players play, and let the referees make the best call they can. Almost every other sport now employs instant replay, and, while it sometimes proves a ref right or wrong, the overuse of the technology is ruining the spirit of the game.
Let the referees on the field make all the calls. Fire them if they make too many bad calls. Put the refs in the media room after the game if there’s a controversial call. Let them tell their side. I guarantee entertainment from that.
Football is a physical game. Players are going to get hurt. They used to wear leather helmets! My Sunday school teacher’s career ended when his own teammate accidentally took out his knee. I do not disagree with a heavy emphasis on player safety. The players are, after all, the product of the NFL. They are the entertainment that fans pay to see. That said, the institution of rules that prohibit certain kinds of tackles or hits have also taken away from the flow and spirit of the game.
Furthermore, these rules only protect certain “skill” players, like the Quarterback or the punter. I get this. The league wants to protect their product, and players don’t want to get hurt. That’s all well and good. However, much like the US Federal Tax Code, when there are so, so, so many rules, watching the game loses much of its luster. Who could explain all these rules to a new fan? Or are there any “new” NFL fans?
I don’t have an answer for this one. It’s a physical game, and people still get badly hurt with all the gear and rules. Has there been a measurable decrease in career-ending injuries since the advent of all the protection rules? If so, ok. If not, strike those rules. Let the kids play.
There’s Branding, And Then There’s NFL Branding
There was an uproar a few years ago when people learned the harsh truth about showing the SuperBowl to a large group of people. The NFL said no. Can’t do it. Can’t fill a church or school or big room with people and show the game on a huge screen. Why? Today, the NFL shares their footage on their YouTube channel, but viewers like me cannot embed those videos in a blog like this one. OK, to be more specific, I can embed the video file, but it won’t play. Embedding the Twitter post is a workaround, but it simply makes no sense to me why such a huge brand would prohibit the electronic distribution of video footage to more people.
In this day and age of digital consumption of all content, mainly video, the more people who see it, the better. One thing I am sure of is that their reasons are financial. I just don’t understand them. And, as a guy who loves watching football, I am part of the NFL’s primary demographic. I’m also a digital marketer. That said, I do not understand, nor appreciate, this over protection of the NFL brand.
NFL, put your best content out there, let us fans use it, share it, and consume it in every way possible. That includes your formerly-glorious trademarked name, “SuperBowl.” Everybody knows what it is and that it belongs to you. Fire a few lawyers.
Last season and this season, instead of awesome plays, heartbreak, comebacks, close calls, and surprises, the dominating headline for the NFL was the player protests. This is America, where everyone has the freedom to protest anything they want, so long as they don’t infringe on the rights of others in their protest. Every player in the NFL absolutely, 100% has a right to protest or use their influence to make change. I may not agree with you, but I will die fighting for your right to express your opinion.
However, each NFL player is an employee of a franchise. Each franchise is a steward of the NFL brand. Some franchises allowed their employees to protest while in uniform, on the field, as they were creating the product we fans pay to watch. Your product was sticking it to those of us who value and take pride in the American flag and the national anthem, and to those sworn to defend these things. What portion of the NFL demographic is that? I do not know what percentage that is, but I do know that it is not insignificant.
Again, individuals have the right to protest. I do not believe, however, that an individual has the right to protest without consequence. Each player who chose to protest by taking a knee during the playing or singing of the National Anthem chose to do so knowing that it would have some effect on that player’s personal brand, their franchise’s brand, and the brand of the NFL.
I believe that the NFL’s brand, and hence ratings, ad dollars, sales, attendance, etc., were hurt by these protests. That said, I do not think that the individual players should be silenced. Far from it! They each have massive influence over huge swaths of our population. I think it is the NFL’s responsibility to guide these individuals in how to use their influence. Just like each team has financial mentors, personal mentors, advisors, and other people to help these kids – remember what you were like at 26, the average age of an NFL Player? – become responsible millionaires so they’re not broke 2 years after they retire.
The prime example: Colin Kaepernick. He has 1.69 million followers on Twitter, 2.3 million on Instagram, and 1.15 million on Facebook. There’s probably some overlap there, but that’s what anyone would call influence. He’s using that following now, because he is no longer employed by an NFL team. The man is crazy talented, and can still have a tremendous influence over millions of people for any cause he chooses.
With some guidance, under the (over-) protection of the NFL brand, every player who knelt or considered kneeling could have had an even bigger impact without potentially damaging the brand of the NFL. It surprises me that the NFL demonstrates such ridiculous effort to control it’s video content, but so comparably little effort to maintain its brand through its players.
SB Halftime Shows
This year, SB52, was the first time in 10 years that I have allowed my kids to watch the Superbowl halftime show. Yes, I am that dad. And I’m ok with that label. Why? Because 10 years ago was the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” of one Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. You and I both know there was no “malfunction”. That show was produced by MTV. Enough said. Since then, I simply said, “OK, kiddos, halftime is bed time!” Since the SuperBowl is always on a Sunday night, it’s no big deal for them to hit the hay sometime between 9-10PM. This year, since they are vaguely aware of who JT is, and he was without Miss Jackson, they wanted to watch, and I gave it a shot.
They (teenagers) were bored silent. Until the very last part when “the theme from “Trolls” came on!” I’ll admit I was entertained when Timberlake entered the crowd and took a selfie (planned or not?) with the kid. Other than that, meh. And that’s how I’ve felt every year except when U2 did the halftime show 15 years ago. OK, Prince doing Purple Rain in a downpour was good, too, but I had tuned out.
I am in the NFL’s prime demographic (interesting stats PDF here), and except for that 2002 show, halftime is when I get a refill and do some of the dishes. It seems like the NFL keeps trying to have some silver bullet at halftime, as if THAT is our primary reason for watching the game. The halftime show is easily at least 3rd on the list behind the game itself and the commercials, not necessarily in that order. And, it seems they always, always have to overdo the “performance.” Lights, action, paid screamers, sparks, rockets, and all the other crap that’s impossible to really follow on TV or in person or both.
It is this soon-to-be grumpy old man’s opinion that if the NFL picked one of the most popular acts at the time (Taylor Swift, Zac Brown, Sam Hunt, Bruno Mars?), and let them just put on a simple show – they only get 20 minutes on stage – everyone would be more entertained, and less let down by ridiculous expectations.
Or bring back the very best university marching bands. Or the US Marine Drum & Bugle Corps.
The Sound of Silence
Yes, I do love the remake of Simon & Garfunkel’s 1964 song by Disturbed, but that’s not my point. My point is this: the crowd at the SuperBowl is generally quiet. Why is that? Because the audience is made up of people who can afford $2,000 – $10,000 per seat, plus, plus, plus. I can’t imagine how much a beer and a hot dog costs at the game. That’s not most of America, and it certainly isn’t the core of the NFL demographic. It’s an event, and while a lot of them are obviously football fans, very few have a dog in the fight, and are there more for the “experience” of going to a SuperBowl than to cheer on their team.
The result is that the rest of us watching on TV are left uninspired by the crowd and, of course, the announcers. Not sure there’s anything the NFL could do about that this one, since it really would not be fair to play the game in one of the team’s cities – which would have meant Boston getting half of the SuperBowl games since 2001. Anybody want that?
I will still watch some NFL football, but I’ll most likely do so only in January and February, much like I watch baseball in October. And that makes me just a little sad, but it’s no longer as entertaining to watch as it used to be.