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About two weeks ago, I was travelling on a Sunday evening – the first Sunday evening of the NFL season.  That evening, there was a brilliantly scripted game scheduled to pitt the New York Giants against the Indianapolis Colts.  The "drama" came from the game being a nationally televised chance to see Eli Manning (quarterback of the Giants) take on his older brother, Peyton Manning (quarterback of the Colts).  In the Washington Dulles airport, at every gate the game was on television.  And not just on, but everyone was watching – even people who never watch football.  What is it about the NFL that commands such attention, even from those who hate sports or even who hate the game?  Why does the NFL deserve to be mentioned in the context of successful brand marketing, and perhaps could even be considered the most successful sports brand in the US (even more so than Nike)?

The answer lies in a combination of the structure of the game and the brilliance of the marketing strategy behind the league.  Here are just a few of the reasons why I believe the NFL is the dominant sports brand in the United States:

  1. The NFL has the money: Perhaps more than any other sport, the NFL is positioned to make the most money because the sport is extremely advertiser-friendly.  Though other sports have tried, this remains the one unique trait that the NFL has claimed above all others.  The game has natural stops and starts, a 60 minute game lasts three hours, and all this time offers plenty of empty space needed to be filled by TV advertisers.  Add to this the fact that a far fewer percentage of viewers are likely to Tivo a live NFL game, and you have an advertising gold mine.  The most obvious symbol of this is the ad frenzy that accompanies the SuperBowl every year with advertisers paying millions of dollars for a 30 second spot.  The NFL can charge what it wants, make billions, and bring TV networks along for the ride.  This flow of money allows the sport to have the freedom to do many things to build the brand.
  2. Fan’s love the game, not just their team: This is a powerful statement, and one that social marketers will understand well.  A football fan loves the game, as well as their team.  It is not just a game for many people, it is a belief.  Through a combination of the power of fantasy football (where fans choose players from multiple teams for their own "fantasy" team and earn points based on those player’s individual performances), to network highlight reels like the controversial "Jacked Up" segment or Chris Berman’s "Fastest 3 minutes" – the game is fun to watch.  NFL Films, with it’s trademark music and voiceovers, complete the picture. And when a sports brand connects on this level, fans remain constant – regardless of individual team performances. 
  3. The NFL community is united in promoting the game: The NFL has realized early that players, former players and coaches are the best brand ambassadors for the game, and they are united in promoting the game.  In almost every local community across the US, former players host camps for kids, contribute time and money to charities through the league’s United Way partnership, own restaurants, run local radio programs and find other ways to live football during and after their playing days are over.  This combination of grassroots activity and genuine passion is infectious – and helps a new generation of sports fans grow up loving the game.
  4. Focus on expanding appeal of the sport to new consumers: While may have started as the perfect sport for guys drinking in bars on Sunday afternoon, the sport has steadily focused on improving it’s appeal with new demographics, and new geographies.  The Super Bowl may help, with it’s advertising bonanza sure to draw equal crowds of women and men, but more and more women are watching football.  The NFL has also launched NFLLatino.com featuring hispanic players like Tony Gonzalez and spanish language content (via Hispanic Trending).  The league has been doing preview exhibition games in international markets and has a dedicated area of their website to promoting the game internationally.  When I lived in Australia, games were abbreviated to 2 hours and commercial breaks also featured football education on the nuances of the game such as how to score a safety or what is an onside kick.  All of these efforts are helping to give sport a more widespread appeal and make the NFL a more international and universal brand.
  5. The sport represents the country: Aside from all the benefits above, the most impressive brand positioning victory for the NFL is that the sport has come to represent the entire country of the United States (displacing baseball as America’s real love).  When troops are sent to "war" – the NFL does the over the top tributes to the troops with incessant flag waving and patriotic commentary.  The NFL owns Thanksgiving day (arguably the most American of holiday
    s) with their two game "doubleheader" tradition.  The ideals of the sport mirror most American’s ideals they wish to see in themselves: patriotic, tough, perseverance, etc.  In short, the sport represents everything American, therefore the brand represents more than just a sport.  The NFL has a brand that means something deep to many football fans, whether they realize it or not.  And this is the most powerful statement one can make about a sports brand. 

Recently, the architect of much of this brand power (Paul Tagliabue) retired and passed the torch to Roger Goodell.  By all accounts, he is seen as the right kind of successor to nuture the strong brand value of the NFL and continue to expand the appeal of the sport internationally and in new demographics.  Judging by the recent moves from the NFL to launch the NFL Network and add Saturday and Thursday evening games to the schedule in the second half of the season – the brand looks to continue it’s reign as the premiere sports brand in America – and well on it’s way to becoming a more globally recognized and loved brand.