What Can You Learn From The NFL's Success?

While most companies and brands aspire to have long-term goals and strategies, the reality is that most marketers get pulled into very short-term tactics and strategies focused on the next product launch or even the next quarter or the next six months’ revenues. Despite that pull to focus strictly on short-term numbers and goals, it's invaluable to study successful media brands and how they reached icon status when marketing to men.

With a new NFL season underway, it's worth looking at the NFL and how it became the most popular and most profitable sport in the world. And, while the NFL’s female viewership continues to rise every year (if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Right, ladies?), the sport is a violent game, played solely by men, and the league’s early marketing efforts solidified its strong male viewership and fan base. 



NFL revenue reached an estimated $9.5 billion in 2011-12 - up $500 million (5.6%) from the year before, and $1.8 billion (23.4%) ahead of Major League Baseball ($7.7 billion).

The NFL has come along way in popularity and profit from when the American Professional Football Association, which was renamed the National Football League in 1922, was created in Canton, Ohio. 

What can we learn from the NFL's success?

Looking forward — but also preserving traditions: Football is a sport rooted in tradition. Yes, the helmets look different, the uniforms look different, and the size of the players look different, but if you look at grainy black-and-white videos of old NFL games, you still see the same basic game that is played today.

Mindful of the concussion problem and player safety, the modern NFL is constantly grappling with rules changes to ensure player safety. But, all of those rule changes are made in a deliberative, contemplative process that is always mindful of the traditions of the game.

Embracing changes in media and how consumers view media: We could write multiple columns about the NFL's media strategy over the years. But many of those decisions have lead to the modern success that we enjoy every Sunday, Monday, and Thursday today.

The NFL created and nourished, and stuck with, media traditions. For example, the first NFL Thanksgiving Day game was televised on Nov. 22, 1956, when the Packers played the Lions. This year, 56 years later, the NFL will broadcast three Thanksgiving Day games — Packers vs. the Lions, Cowboys vs. Raiders, and Steelers vs. Ravens.

When the NFL announced its agreement with ABC to broadcast the first Monday Night Football game in 1970, the decision was met with howls of derision in the media industry at the time. This was years before ESPN's 24/7 sports coverage, and football not played on Sunday sounded ludicrous. If you want to learn more about the creation and evolution of the Monday Night Football spectacle, Monday Night Mayhem is an excellent book that chronicles the success of MNF.   

In more recent times, sports media pundits derided the first NFL games broadcast on the league's own cable channel, the NFL Network. The league ignored those criticisms and has steadily expanded the number of games played each season on Thursday night for broadcast solely via the NFL Network.

Discussing the decision to launch Monday Night Football may sound quaint in our era of popular apps that rise and fall over a matter of weeks, or social network memes that many are convinced portend a new direction in media before they promptly screech to a halt.

Yet, it's also instructive not to get bogged down in the historical dating of these decisions, but look and learn from those decisions. In hindsight, the NFL challenged the ideas of how the sport should be broadcast, they challenged the orthodoxy, and their bets paid off with more viewers, more fans, and more profits.

Mindful of international audience and interest: Finally, some may look at the NFL's recent international games and wince at what could be perceived as the league's ham-handed efforts to build an international audience. 

In October 2005, the Arizona Cardinals beat the San Francisco 49ers at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City in the first regular season NFL game played outside the U.S. Since then, the NFL has been organized one regular season game per year in London as well.

Again, despite the critics and naysayers, the NFL is committed to playing regular season games in other countries, and there have even been some whispers in the league about owners interested in moving a team permanently to a foreign country. League media execs know that if the NFL is going to continue to grow at the rate it has grown in the past in terms of viewership and revenue, the League needs to expand its presence beyond the U.S. 

Looking at these strategies and tactics, what can you learn or apply to your own brand? Are you respecting the traditions of your brand — the things that people care about and love about you — while also pushing the brand into the future? Are you pushing back against whatever media orthodoxy you operate in? Are you expanding and embracing a range of media options for your brands - even ones that pundits may criticize first? And, what's your international strategy?

You can't argue with the NFL's success, so why not try to learn from that success? 

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