NFL Turns to Digital Influencers in Fight to Win Over Young Fans

Jacob Feldman
·4 min read

As weeknight NFL games outdrew playoff contests in other sports, TV ratings during this fall’s unprecedented sports frenzy have only further solidified football’s spot as America’s preeminent sport.

Among younger fans, though, the race is significantly tighter.

An August survey of Gen Zers found the NFL and NBA in a virtual dead heat, with 18 percent of 13- to 23-year-olds considering themselves avid fans of each sport, and another 30 percent casual fans.

To continue drawing young fans, the NFL is increasingly using influencer marketing, although the league’s strategy extends far beyond the simple sponsored post. Influencers are not paid for the “vast majority” of NFL-related content they create, said Ian Trombetta, NFL senior vp of social and influencer marketing. “The last thing we want to do is come off as paying someone to represent a club or the league.”

The NFL doesn’t want the 1200 influencers it works with to think of the league as strictly business partners, either. “We just call them new friendships,” NFL vp of influencer marketing Eddie Capobianco said.

Last year, a new department in the league office built (with third-party support) an influencer identification tool and put together a 30-page playbook teaching clubs how to engage with online personalities. The NFL has targeted influencers within the gaming, music, fashion and wellness spaces in particular.

Teams were already working with their most famous supporters, but the tool—which internally is simply called the “NFL Influencer Tool”—has helped clubs identify so-called “micro-influencers” who might have previously flown under the radar but whose online voices are still valuable.

The tool allows marketers to target specific demographics and confirm that influencers previously showed support for the team in question. Trombetta joined the NFL from Activision, where he learned the importance of authenticity while marketing to a gaming community that is quick to ridicule an apparent cash grab.

Capobianco and his team do plenty of traditional scouting, too. He talks to managers, reads bellwether blogs and attends events like Coachella. “The spirit of our department is to keep the league young, relevant, and modern—to stay ahead of trends,” he said. New potential collaborators are discovered every day.

Initially, the league and teams offered their more popular fans gameday experiences and behind-the-scenes access, but COVID-19 has forced clubs like the 49ers to get creative. San Francisco has instead offered its platform, putting influencers in front of virtual fan groups and featuring musicians on the team’s Spotify playlist.

“We’re figuring out ways to be able to promote them while also engaging them,” 49ers brand marketing director Allie Dicken said. “Everything that has happened… made us realize all the ways we can involve them.”

In the world of sports, largely unpaid programs are sustainable because of the genuine interest influencers have in their favorite teams and sports, according to Mathew Micheli, a co-founder at influencer marketing agency Viral Nation.

Much of the relationship management work is invisible to the average social media user. “What we’re trying to do is develop an always-on model,” Trombetta said, with the long-term goal of reaching and attracting younger fans.

Often, the NFL is basically influencing the influencer. “We’re definitely creating positive sentiment,” Capobianco said. “We’ve seen that shift. There are people who in the past may not have wanted to work with the NFL, and that’s changed.”

San Francisco has used the league’s tool to fill its influencer rolodex with nearly 100 names, from YouTuber Ryan Higa to MMA fighter Nate Diaz. Still, plenty of the team’s most successful relationships have come from old-school legwork. Dicken was scrolling TikTok when she decided to see where viral rapper 24kGoldn was from; she discovered he was a Bay Area native and 49ers fan.

Another new connection came from none other than star tight end George Kittle, who was caught on camera singing Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8r Boi” during practice. After Lavigne shared the video, the 49ers reached out, offering a Kittle jersey and seeing if the Canadian pop star would record a tongue-in-cheek video referencing Kittle’s affinity for Canadian accents.

The result got nearly 1.5 million views on San Francisco and the NFL’s Instagram pages, while Lavigne promoted it to her 8.2 million followers. For the price of a jersey, plus shipping and handling, that’s not bad.

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