NFL finally catching up to NBA's social media cult of personality

(Yahoo Sports illustration by Michael Wagstaffe)
(Yahoo Sports illustration by Michael Wagstaffe)

Six little words, delivered via Twitter, that hit with the de-cleating force of a linebacker sacking a helpless quarterback in the open field:

“My ex still thinks of me.”

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That was Antonio Brown, responding on Twitter on Thursday night to a report that ratings for “Hard Knocks,” the HBO reality show following his Oakland Raidersracked up ratings triple the national average in Pittsburgh. That, of course, was the town AB ran before an ugly split last season. Hey, breakups happen, but is there any revenge sweeter than knowing you’re still on your ex’s mind?

It wasn’t the kind of tweet you’d expect from an NFL player. Matter of fact, it was downright NBA-esque. And although few in the Raiders or Steelers office want to admit it, that’s good news for The Shield.

NFL: Dominant but slow-moving

By any objective measure, the NFL’s shadow covers the entire sporting world. NFL games claimed 46 of the top 50 broadcasts during last year’s regular season. In an era where hundreds of television shows scrabble for crumbs of viewership, the Super Bowl continues to do nine-figure numbers, year after year.

But for all its dominance, the NFL is losing the coolness battle to the NBA by five touchdowns. It’s stadium rock in a mixtape world, compact discs to the NBA’s Spotify, too big and slow to keep up with the ever-changing trends of culture. Sure, the NFL (24.6 million Twitter followers) nearly matches the NBA (28.3 million) in sheer numbers. But that’s not the point. The NFL’s prevailing ethos — the logo on the side of the helmet is more important than the face beneath it — doesn’t fly in a your-life-is-your-brand era.

That’s why guys like Brown — and, before him, fellow exceptions-to-the-rule like Terrell Owens, Deion Sanders and Joe Namath — are so much fun. They bring an edge and a personality to a game designed to sand off any rough edges and boil down even the most outlandish personalities into sponsor-friendly Muppets.

Compare that with the NBA, a game built on the idea of individual improvisation. It’s cliche now to say that the off-court drama has eclipsed anything that happens in an NBA game, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The NBA has taken the NFL’s fill-every-news-cycle strategy and amped that up with an injection of personality and star power. You can check on LeBron James’ taco offerings and wine pairings every Tuesday, you can see what fashion-bending outfits James Harden and Russell Westbrook wear before and after every game, you can see who’s got Kevin Durant riled up today and feel you’re up to date with the NBA without ever looking at a box score.

Brady, Brown, Mayfield among social media leaders

At long last, the NFL is starting to catch up to the NBA’s vast lead. This isn’t the league’s doing, of course; The Shield would prefer that all players show up, suit up, play hard but humbly, and Act Like They’ve Been There Before in all situations.

Players have flouted that mandate before, but they were always constrained by the limitations of broadcast media. You’d see only Namath guaranteeing victory or TO stomping on the Dallas star if television chose to show you that. No more.

Now we’ve got Brown firing off bottle rockets in every direction, including right back at himself. Baker Mayfield calling out everything from participation-trophy schools to opposing quarterbacks like he’s a Staten Island sports radio caller. Shoot, even Tom Brady—the epitome of the NFL establishment—shows us a slice of his persona on social media. (So what if it’s like your dad telling you that he likes “that rain drop song from the Migos”? He’s trying.)

There are various levels of strategy and forethought at play here. Mayfield peppers his Twitter feed with sponsor shoutouts. You get the idea that Brown is firing off tweets from his couch with his blistered feet propped up, while every transmission from TomBradyCorp probably goes through a multi-stage focus-group approval process. (“I feel we should dad-ify him by 10 percent or so.”).

Mayfield is the most interesting case here. He’s one of the first NFL stars to come of age in a post-Twitter era, and he understands exactly how to market himself to a younger audience. (Shotgunning beers at ballgames, and retweeting approving tweets, is a start.) Now that Cleveland is an NFL darling team, he has the greatest gift any star can have right now — anticipation and adulation in advance of any actual in-game performance — and Mayfield appears determined to turn the Browns into something they haven’t been in, well, ever: fun. If he pulls it off — and social media is a high wire act with a long, long fall — he could be the Prime Time for a new generation. (Can you imagine an in-his-prime Prime on social media? Ochocinco tweeting while running a route? Jim McMahon’s Instagram feed? The mind reels.)

Granted, this kind of tomfoolery doesn’t sit well with the do-your-job crowd, the legacy fans who believe politely handing a ball back to a referee is all the celebration a touchdown requires. And that’s fine, if you like your football to have all the thrilling excitement of balancing your checkbook.

But here’s the thing: that group of (mostly) aged fans isn’t going anywhere; ratings for NFL games in 2018 were up 5 percent over the possibly-protest-induced declines of 2016 and 2017. If you’ve been a fan of the NFL up to this point, you’re riding it out.

The real issue for the NFL is how to capture younger eyes. Fans under the age of 25 aren’t going to follow their parents into NFL fandom via some sort of generational inertia; younger fans have dozens more entertainment options on the table (or phone, or tablet) these days. To them, the NFL isn’t some monolithic, guaranteed obsession; it’s a choice on a menu, nothing more.

The NFL has longstanding cultural and perceptual barriers to overcome before it approaches anything close to the NBA’s effortless cool. But it’s clear now that it’s not just AB’s ex that’s thinking of him. Whether the NFL wants to admit it or not, that’s exactly the attitude the league needs to embrace going forward.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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