What Every Company Can Learn From The NFL About Dominating The Field

American's most popular sport is back this week. How did the NFL become the new national pastime? And how can your business follow in its cleat-marked footsteps?

Pro football is America's favorite sport --34% of Americans say so--and the NFL grew its revenue last year by $500 million dollars to $9.5 billion. That's 25% higher than what major league baseball brings in. The NFL has obviously done more than a few things right. So what can we learn from this sports juggernaut?

1) Make Your Product More Accessible.
Originally, college football was more popular than pro football. But as pro football's popularity grew, more people wanted to see the games and the first televised NFL game happened back in 1939 when the Philadelphia Eagles played the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field (yes, back in the day many NFL teams just picked up baseball team names and used them). Other ways the game became more accessible was through the NFL Films series created by the Sabol family, allowing players' names on jerseys and creating more team merchandise options for fans. Also critical was the expansion beyond Sunday to Monday Night Football (another cultural phenomenon) and now Thursday Night Football. The introduction of the NFL Sunday Ticket allowed fans like me to watch their home teams from anywhere in the country. Lastly,the NFL Channel, nfl.com and other NFL social media enable the organization to directly reach fans.

An aside: For those of you too young to remember, another innovation was allowing the official time to be kept on the scoreboard instead of on the field. Unbelievably, before then you would be watching TV and, in the most important last minutes of the game, you wouldn't know how much time was really left. It is the ultimate understatement to say that was very frustrating.

Bottom Line: Starbucks does a very good job as well at making its offerings more accessible by providing them in new venues, such as the ready-to-drink beverages that they sell in convenience, drug, club, and grocery stores. That's in addition to creating store-in-store Starbucks in places like Target (there's the old Onion joke on this: New Starbucks Opens In Rest Room Of Existing Starbucks).

2) Keep Your Product Updated and Interesting
Although the NFL didn't officially form until 1920 (originally using the name "American Professional Football Conference," which then became the National Football League in 1922) football was already innovating. A couple big changes that livened up the game in the late 1800s and early 1900s were: a) touchdowns going from only being worth four points to being worth six by 1912; b) field goals going from being worth five points to only three by 1909; and c) the introduction of the forward pass in 1906. These were some major changes to build on and in 1933 the NFL allowed the forward pass to be made from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. Another big innovation during this time was the institution of the college draft in 1936.

There were other important innovations in the interim (mandatory helmets for safety, unlimited substitution which enabled specialization, the Pro Bowl game to showcase the best players, officials replacing horns with whistles), but let's fast-forward to the 1960s. During that time, two very creative men, Pete Rozelle, Commissioner of the NFL, and Lamar Hunt, founder and president of the American Football League (the newly founded NFL competitor), put the game into overdrive.

The merger agreement between the NFL and the AFL in 1965 to form one league brought new energy and rivalries to the sport. It also grew the fanbase. More important, the introduction of the Super Bowl in 1967 (the official name was the AFL-NFL World Championship game but Hunt coined the term "Super Bowl" and it stuck) made the season even more climactic. Super Bowls are regularly the most-watched TV programs in the U.S. and have become a cultural event that goes beyond the game alone (as anyone who has watched it just for the commercials would know).

But the NFL didn't stop there. It kept refining the formula to make the game even more compelling. In the 1970s, the innovations came fast and furious with the introduction of Wild Card teams in the playoffs, Sudden Death Overtime in regular games, the field goal uprights being moved back to make it hard to win with just a field goal, and a series of rule changes that increased scoring by making it easier for receivers to get free and offensive linemen to protect the quarterback. Another key rule change was the addition of the two-point conversion in 1994 that made it easier for a team to come back late in the game. Also, parity and free agency made it possible for more teams to turn around their fortunes after a bad year.

Bottom Line: Other companies that are great at keeping their products updated and fresh are Apple (of course), Google, and Facebook.

3) Leverage Technology.
As mentioned above, the NFL has used technology to expand access through television and now the Internet. But there are other ways it has done so as well. These include things such as the use of the instant replay (first for just the fans and then for use by field officials), artificial surfaces that speed up the game and look great, smart uniform materials that help players look and play better, the 360 camera which can take a play and show it from different camera angles, film chalkboards that allow analysts to diagram what's happening in a play, helmet audio that enables coaches to provide plays to their offense and defense and the yellow on-screen "first down" line that helps fans know if their team is going to get a new set of downs or not.

And fans in the stadiums are not being left out either, as they get huge TV screens (Houston will have the widest one with over 14,000 total feet of display surface) and amenities such as WiFi, tablet holders on seats, and Internet television with in-house video at the San Francisco 49ers new stadium.

Bottom Line: Leveraging technology to enhance the customer experience is something companies like Amazon do as well.

4) Build Partnerships to Expand the Franchise.
Beyond the usual television arrangements, the NFL works with several sponsors that bring money and prestige to the sport and with video game companies that allow fans to run their own teams. The NFL also works with charities that help youth and those in need. Now it is looking into creating a venture fund, through which team owners and companies such as EA, DirecTV, and ESPN will be able to jointly invest in new businesses that will grow the sport.

Bottom Line: Disney is another company that excels at working with other companies to exploit their partnerships and expand their franchises.

So, when you are back at work Monday talking about Sunday's game, take time to think about how these lessons from the NFL can be applied at your company. Then, make sure you get home in time for some Monday Night Football.

[Image: Flickr user Ted Kerwin]

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