Football has a deep and intimate tradition within the American zeitgeist. On one hand, it’s a children's game with a very simple goal: get more points than the other team. On the other hand, it’s a complex military assignment with infinite strategies executed in front of a gargantuan mob of intense eye witnesses. Say that sentence three times fast with a mouthful of marbles. It’s very difficult to describe how American Football has affected modern advertising and entertainment. I’m going to give it a shot though. We will discuss its history, some of the interesting things that happened along the way, and then I will attempt to tie it all together and share some teachables that you can apply to your strategy.
*I understand concussions and violence plays a role in the history of the sport. In this blog, I can’t find a reason to include it in this specific discussion. If you feel like I missed an opportunity please feel free to hit me up and educate me on how I could approach it effectively.
Let’s start with the lesser known league the AFL aka The American Football League. This league existed between 1960 to 1969. It was the first major competitor to the NFL. With it’s creative innovations it is highly responsible for the game we see today. The AFL was formed by a group of eight owners who wanted to challenge the established NFL and bring a new, more wide-open style of play to the sport. The league's alterations included; the use of the two-point conversion, the names on the back of jerseys, and the emphasis on passing over running. In 1970, the AFL and NFL merged, forming the modern NFL.
The Super Bowl, the championship game of the National Football League (NFL), started in 1967. The first Super Bowl was played on January 15, 1967, between the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs. The Super Bowl has since become one of the largest annual sporting events in the United States and one of the most-watched television broadcasts in the world. To give you some perspective the most watched game was Super Bowl XLIX (2015) which brought in 114.4 million viewers, when the New England Patriots won against the Seattle Seahawks.
The Half-Time Show
In 1992 CBS counter programmed the halftime show (which was on Fox) with the sketch comedy show “In Living Color”. The Super Bowl lost millions of viewers during that time frame. The next year the halftime show featured the king of pop - Michael Jackson. The reason why the halfshow was counterprogrammed was because it became notoriously boring. The NFL treated it like an afterthought. The entertainment would consist of big bands and the type of entertainment a modern audience did not have interest in. In a sense the NFL owes a debt of gratitude to In Living Color for waking them up to the huge potential of the halftime show.
*one of the gazillion examples I have to share.
Feb 1, 2004, the world saw a boob. Yes it was only half a second but it was a boob and it belonged to an iconic pop star named Janet Jackson. It’s all we could talk about. Rumor has it that it spawned the first iteration of youtube so that people could share it. Jaws dropped on the ground, there was surprise, there was delight, there was confusion, and then there was the pearl clutching. Janet Jackson was joined by Justin Timberlake and they performed “Rock Your Body”. Timberlake, for some reason, reached across to Janet Jackson and ripped her shirt open. There it was, a boob, nipple covered, but a boob out there for us to see for half a second.
The incident caused a huge uproar, with many people calling for stricter standards for broadcast content, especially during family-friendly events like the Super Bowl. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) received hundreds of thousands of complaints and launched an investigation into the matter. The fallout from the incident also had a significant impact on Janet Jackson's career, as she faced widespread criticism and backlash from the public and media. You heard me, “she”, faced the criticism. Not the guy that ripped her top open but the lady who was exposed supposedly by accident.
Janet Jackson's performance at the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show was a turning point in the history of American sports entertainment. It sparked important conversations about gender, censorship, and representation, and remains a significant moment in popular culture to this day.
This is a topic I could talk about for a long time but I shall digress and keep this ball rolling.
Some of the most popular Superbowl ads include: Apple's "1984" commercial, which introduced the Macintosh computer, and Coca-Cola's "Mean Joe Green" commercial from 1979. Other advertisements that are often considered classic and memorable include Budweiser's "Frogs" ad from 1995 and the "Betty White" Snickers commercial from 2010.
If you haven’t seen these ads I recommend you hit up the magical Youtube box. Wait til you’re done with this blog first.
How Football Sold the Television Set to America
Football helped sell the first TVs in America by providing a popular and exciting live event that people wanted to watch in their homes. The broadcast of NFL games, starting in the late 1940s, was a key factor in driving the growth of television ownership in the United States. In the early days of television, there were few TV shows and limited programming, but the broadcast of live football games on Sunday afternoons was a reliable source of entertainment for viewers and helped to establish TV as a central part of American culture. As TV ownership grew, the demand for TVs increased, leading to further growth and innovation in the television industry. Additionally, the television broadcast of the Super Bowl, which began in 1967, has become one of the most-watched television events of the year, further helping to drive TV sales.
How the NFL Marketed Itself
The NFL has marketed itself through various strategies and initiatives aimed at promoting the league and engaging with fans. Some of the key ways the NFL has marketed itself include:
Partnerships and Sponsorships: The NFL has established partnerships with media companies, technology companies, and sponsor brands to create a broad range of content and experiences for fans.
Broadcast and Media: The NFL has invested heavily in its broadcast and media offerings, including TV contracts with major networks, streaming services, and its own NFL Network, to deliver live games, highlights, and analysis to fans.
Social Media: The NFL has a strong presence on social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, where it interacts with fans, promotes games and events, and shares behind-the-scenes content.
Experiential Marketing: The NFL has created fan-focused events and activations, such as the NFL Draft, the Super Bowl Experience, and the NFL Combine, to bring fans closer to the action and generate excitement around the league.
Merchandising and Retail: The NFL has developed a wide range of merchandise, including jerseys, hats, and other gear, that allows fans to show their support for their favorite teams and players.
Overall, the NFL has used a combination of these and other marketing strategies to build its brand, engage with fans, and grow the popularity of the sport.
Histories Most Important NFL Executive
The NFL has been blessed with some of the most clever executives in sports history. They figured out how to promote the game, how the game should be played, and how to get the best players. Here are a few of the most influential executives in the history of the NFL:
Joe Car: Car served as the first Commissioner of the league (1921 to 1939). He is arguably the most important figure in the NFL’s history. Car was instrumental in implementing several key policies and rules that shaped the modern game of football, including the NFL Draft, the revenue-sharing model, and the introduction of the NFL Championship Game.
Pete Rozelle: Rozelle served as the Commissioner of the NFL from 1960 to 1989 and was instrumental in growing the league into the powerhouse it is today. He secured lucrative television contracts, expanded the league from 12 to 28 teams, and played a key role in establishing the NFL as America's most popular sport.
Paul Tagliabue: Tagliabue served as the Commissioner of the NFL from 1989 to 2006 and continued the league's growth and success. He oversaw the expansion of NFL Europe, the creation of NFL Sunday Ticket, and the negotiation of new broadcast deals that brought the NFL to even more fans around the world.
Art Rooney: Rooney was one of the founding owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers and played a key role in the early development of the NFL. He was a tireless advocate for the league and helped to establish many of the traditions and practices that continue to shape the NFL today.
Al Davis: Davis was a visionary owner and general manager of the Oakland Raiders who helped to shape the NFL in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. He was known for his innovative ideas, including the use of the vertical passing game, and for his commitment to winning and excellence.
Lamar Hunt: Hunt was a founder of the American Football League (AFL) and played a key role in the eventual merger of the AFL and the NFL, which created the modern NFL. He was also the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs and was known for his passion for the sport and his commitment to making it a better and more successful league. He also coined the name “Superbowl”. This was due to it getting stuck in his head cause his kids kept playing super-ball.
These individuals, and so many others, helped to shape the NFL into the powerful and popular league it is today, and their influence ripples through the NFL today.
The NFL makes bank. According to Forbes, the league generated around $17 billion in revenue in 2021. I will repeat that for those in the back row, SEVENTEEN BILLION loonies in one freakin year. The NFL is one of the most lucrative professional sports leagues in the world. For context, the NBA does approximately $8 billion a year. They make all of that money from; television contracts, merchandise sales, and ticket sales. The league also has a large and dedicated fan base, which helps drive its profitability.
What Can We Learn About Marketing From the NFL
I am going to start to sound like a broken record here but what the NFL does better than most is they…. TELL THE BEST STORY! The narrative of the NFL hits all the hallmarks of a great tale. They have a physical and intellectual game. They don’t rest on that though. The NFL understands themes like; loyalty, good vs evil, betrayal, coming of age and many more. They use these themes in their promotion all the time. They lean into the pomp and circumstance of their events. The NFL convinces 100’s of millions of people that their show is the most important thing happening in the world when it happens.
I can’t say this enough, understand what your story is and tell it well and often. I hope the best for you and if you have any feedback on this blog please hit me up.