Football on your phone

How the NFL is digitizing itself to stay relevant for millennials

The National Football League has long held the throne as America’s favorite sport. Even with its dominance in television, 34 of the top 35 watched shows in America were NFL games, viewership has been slipping and the league has been looking for new ways to connect with young fans1. The answer may lie in using the internet of things and live streaming to reach fans who are no longer spending hours in front of their TV on Sundays2.

The NFL has already started to take steps to move from the traditional television partnerships to reach their fans and expand the overall audience for their games. The NFL first experimented with streaming in 2015 with its partnership with Yahoo. “‘The NFL has always been committed to being at the forefront of media innovation. Through this partnership with Yahoo — one of the world’s most recognizable digital brands — we are taking another important step in that direction as we continue to closely monitor the rapidly evolving digital media landscape,’ said Roger Goodell, Commissioner of the National Football League”4. The Bills-Jaguar game in London was only available via Yahoo streaming and it was a huge success. The game attracted “15.2 million unique users, nearly five times more than the previous record for a streaming audience, the 2014 World Cup match between Belgium and the American national team”3.  Even more impressive, one third of the viewers were outside the US, showing that streaming can not only help the NFL connect with millennials, it can also bring in a new audience5.

In 2016, the NFL is continuing to push the digital envelope by creating a partnership with Twitter for the Thursday Night Football games. Twitter will be live streaming the Thursday Night Football games for free to all viewers on their twitter accounts. “The league is using Thursday night games, which draw smaller audiences than the contests on Sundays and Mondays, to experiment with different kinds of media, distribution models and technologies. By the time the NFL’s biggest broadcast contracts expire in 2021, it will be prepared to sell a broad array of digital rights — and make more money”6.

Customers want to be able to consume live games beyond a television set, but there are other ways the NFL can use this push to a digital world to create more value for sponsors, players, and fans alike. The league can to continue to create new content as the threshold for viewership becomes a lot lower in the digital streaming age. There are no longer large contracts that require large viewership to make it worth the money and time for the NFL and sponsors alike to offer the content. When testing this hypothesis “people gravitated to the long-form content, the Netflix-style content, shows like A Football Life, content that you lean back and watch”7. Last month the NFL announced a partnership with Whistle Sports to develop and distribute this exciting new content across a broad range of social media platforms, providing another key touch point for our fans and sponsors to participate in NFL conversation online”8. These new media outlets will also create new opportunities for sponsors to connect with customers.

However, this digitalized world can offer more to fans than just streaming games and more video content. The league is using the internet of things by inputting RFID chips in the pads of players to track all their movements on the field9. These stats can help players learn on where they need to improve, help coaches make sure they’re optimizing each player’s practice and field time to make sure not to overwork players, and help making play calls based on data collected on the other team. This level of data is also gold for the growing base of diehard fantasy football fans who are always looking for new data on their favorite players.


So, what is next? How can the NFL continue to reach its fans and find new revenue streams in an increasingly digital world? One way is to continue the push for big data to make the game not only more accessible but also safer. Why not put sensors in the helmets that can measure how hard of a hit a player takes? Instead of visual clues of concussion symptoms, we can use science to protect the players and the sanctity of the game. We can also use the digital streaming to connect fans from all over the world. Instead of streaming a game on yahoo, it could be Facebook so fans could live comment back and forth around the world watching the game together while being miles apart. The NFL should continue to use digital media and data to enhance the game for players and fans alike.

(words: 788)


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Student comments on Football on your phone

  1. AJR thank for you post. I agree with you that sports teams can leverage their brand by using digital channels to reach all of its fans. As you pointed out, the strategy used by the NFL to reach a broader audience was to partner with key companies with digital expertise, like Yahoo and Twitter. However, alongside with partnering with those companies, NFL could invest in creating its own digital platform to better connect with its clients. As we saw in Nike’s case on our marketing class, by creating its own online platform, a company can better understand its customer’s needs and tailor its products and offerings. So, that may be an alternative for NFL. By doing that, the company will be able to found out which kind of players and plays customers value the most to focus on and adjust its process.

    Also, as Billy mentioned in his/her post, NFL can also benefit from introducing technological tools for game tracking and analysis. NFL fans tend to value a lot their view experience in a way that every additional feature that contributes to increasing view quality may be valuable. So, investing in technology for that may prove to increase views and therefore result in more profits for NFL

  2. Great post, AJR! I can attest to the fact that the league has prioritized digital strategy, and to your point, focused on digitalization not only in the context of broadcasting, but also in the context of player health and safety.

    Regarding its digital strategy for content dissemination, one thing to keep in mind is the fact that broadcast networks, who have had long-standing relationships with the NFL, are incentivized to keep the League’s content on a fairly closed platform and are prepared to offer high bids to do so. In addition, the NFL currently partners with DirecTV to stream live content for fans, meaning the NFL itself cannot likely offer a streaming option for fans unless it terminates its contract. The biggest hurdle I see from the League’s perspective, is not whether the technology partners exist to more broadly disseminate content, but rather how can the League maintain its partnerships while still delivering digital content to fans who are eager to view games in a new way. I think by offering different or unique content (like player and fan perspectives streamed on Snapchat or interactive game viewing by voting to predict scores), the NFL can maintain its current broadcasting partnerships and still provide high quality, digital content to fans. What I hope to see going forward is a greater focus on digitalization from the network/broadcaster perspective (e.g., NBC, CBS, ESPN) so that NFL can leverage their platforms and distribution rather than having to invest in developing its own digital media capabilities.

  3. Good post, AJR. While internet-streaming offers fans more options to watch football, the traditional NFL networks (CBS, FOX, ESPN) are incentivized to keep viewers watching the NFL on their TV due to the large amount of revenue brought in by traditional TV advertising. Additionally, the NFL makes a significant amount of money both from sponsors and from the actual TV contracts themselves. As viewership on TV goes down, will the NFL lose money because future TV contracts will be smaller than before (since there are fewer people watching on TV)? Similarly, will networks like ESPN, CBS, and FOX be negatively impacted by the fact that advertisers will be less-willing to spend big money on TV advertising?

    Personally, as a viewer, I’m glad that watching the NFL is becoming more accessible and available through other media than network TV. However, these new platforms are still very new for the NFL and I wonder what the impact will be on the TV networks and the NFL as viewers shift their viewing habits towards these new platforms.

  4. Great post AJR! As an NFL fan from abroad, I have all too often struggled to get to see most NFL games. In some parts of the world, this generally involves paying a cable company for a 1-year contract and then additional fees to actually manage to watch a few games. In others, it has meant no access whatsoever. I am convinced that streaming services will allow the NFL to bypass cable companies and get a bigger audience by offering less expensive content to avid consumers abroad. This will allow the NFL and consumers to keep the whole pie to themselves.

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