The one month of the calendar year in which the NFL rests is a time of reflection (I’m in a reflective mood, having just returned from a yoga retreat in Costa Rica). While the business of the NBA has recently dominated the headlines with key stars moving teams in free agency, sports conversation will soon move to the NFL, to more NFL and even more NFL. The power of the league is palpable.
But the question I am pondering is this: what is the NFL’s single biggest challenge in maintaining its dominant position in American sports?
First, let’s talk about some issues are NOT issues causing any real turbulence on the NFL’s flight to continued prosperity, even though the fans and media have talked plenty about them:
Yes, Commissioner Roger Goodell can appear robotic and lacking in humanity. I have seen a softer side to him not shown publicly, perhaps at the request of constituent owners who prefer an unrevealing leader. And yes, his disciplinary decisions can appear arbitrary and sometimes capricious. However, the NFL has been as popular and profitable as ever under his watch. While NBA commissioner Adam Silver presents as more progressive and player-friendly, in the end both are merely suits. The product is the draw. Fans and media may complain about Goodell (and booing the Commissioner has become a staple of the NFL Draft), but his popularity—or lack thereof—has had no tangible effect on the league’s booming business.
Remember when Colin Kaepernick’s protests—and the tensions that followed—were going to begin of the decline of the NFL? Please. Not even the Tweeter-in-Chief could make the issue one that would turn off fans in any appreciable or lasting way. The NFL settled Kaepernick’s collusion grievance in March, protests have trickled to a whimper (with no policy added) and the NFL prosperity train was barely delayed.
Most predictions of the NFL’s demise relate to this topic. I have heard many people—some of whose opinions I greatly respect—suggest that what happened to boxing will also happen to football, both due to the violence of the game and the brain trauma it leaves in its wake. Well….no.
While some cringe at the violence of the game, it remains a big part of the sell. We lament the violence while, at the same time, we crave it. Boxing actually suffered in part because of the rise of MMA, which is more violent and bloody. Brutality have been part of sports since the gladiators; it is not going away.
The reality is: 1) the NFL has never had a safer product, with more limited practice time and offseason contact than colleges and high schools; and 2) while some parents will funnel their sons to other sports, this will have no effect on a qualified applicant pool for the NFL (and other leagues). We are years removed from what was depicted in League of Denial and Concussion, and the uncomfortable truth is many fans would like to see even more violence than the NFL currently allows. Brutality is part of the game and, as the NFL knows, vital to the attraction.
The NFL’s biggest challenge ahead is this: to attract—and maintain—a younger audience. This is the challenge for every sports league, as younger consumers have grown up in an on-demand world, with dramatically more content choices than previous generations. Leagues, and businesses, which understand that and cater to it will prosper; lthose that do not will suffer.
The NFL has already started to address the challenge in the last year or so. They have taken small steps to shorten games; the NFL must recognize they cannot continue broadcasts that last close to 200 minutes with 11 minutes of game action. Game times are now closer to three hours exactly; I predict they will move closer to two-and-a-half hours in the next five years. And the NFL has begun engaging with the digital media giants that control so much content viewed by younger consumers. First-mover deals with Twitter, Yahoo and now Amazon will turn into more substantive and comprehensive partnerships in years to come; that is inevitable. And there will be more licensing deals with companies such as Fortnite (which entered into a small deal with the NFL last season) that appeal to a younger audience.
The Key Word: Data
The word that will be key to the NFL attracting younger fans is this: data.
Younger fans crave data and will demand accessibility to it. Statistical information that had been the exclusive province of teams is now more available to a broader audience, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Consumers, especially younger ones, live in a world of analytics-driven decision making. The NFL must appeal to that world, which will inevitably cause pushback.
For example, younger fans are increasingly interested in down-and-distance decisions and optimizing play selection with statistical probabilities, causing second-guessing of coaches that go with “gut decisions” over quantified models. And on the scouting side, analytical models showing failure rates of players of a certain size or speed will become mainstream, as younger fans start to demand that type of information.
This demand is inextricably linked, of course, is sports gambling. We have crossed into a new frontier, with betting now legalized in 15 states and counting. Teams have closely guarded information such as injury status, mostly for competitive reasons (even with rules requiring them to share more). However, injury information is vital to the sports betting community, and as the NFL enters into more partnerships with companies such as Caesar’s (the fact the league now has an “official casino” after decades of railing against casinos is mind-boggling), there will be increased pressure for teams to release more data. And the inevitability of in-game wagering presents both an opportunity for the NFL—with a new and fertile revenue stream—but also potential challenges in regard to competitive balance and privacy. There will be many conflicts with teams and players about what data can remain private.
The league has a massive challenge ahead and, in my opinion, its biggest one yet. Capturing “the next” by giving the younger audience what it wants, which will include more data and more access, is a necessary and important business move, but one that will face pushback from teams, the NFLPA and individual players. Balancing concerns about competitive balance and privacy will be difficult, but the days of this information being completely proprietary are waning; consumers are already demanding more and that will only increase.
Ultimately, the NFL must respond to the consumer: the business of sports always wins. It may be a bumpy ride to get there, but—in my opinion—more data and more access are the key to maintaining that cherished younger audience.How the NFL handles this issue will be the defining legacy of this era.
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