The NFL remains the nation’s most profitable sports league, generating more than $10 billion in annual revenue, and shows no signs of slowing down. But even the king of U.S. sports can’t rest on its laurels.
As audiences have become more fragmented with more alternative media options, the NFL has the tall task of staying culturally and socially relevant. The league is targeting its next group of fans through a multi-pronged approach that includes atypical broadcasts, streaming options and gaming crossovers.
“We’re trying to feed the appetite of the fan and the consumer,” NFL chief revenue officer Renie Anderson said during a Super Bowl panel on Wednesday. “We’re providing an opportunity for consumers to lean a little bit deeper in areas that they’re focused on.”
One of those areas is the metaverse. The NFL has joined the latest digital trend by launching NFL Tycoon through a partnership with popular gaming platform Roblox. The league says it will offer fans a chance to enter the user-generated 3D experience, which includes a team store where they can buy official jerseys and other gear—a first step toward monetizing the virtual universe.
It’s one of the latest ways the league is looking to capture both Gen Z and Gen Alpha while driving future business growth. NexTech AR Solutions CEO Evan Gappelberg points out that participating in a fully realized digital world has become a viable alternative to traditional sports. Gappelberg said the country’s most powerful sports league must invest in gamification or be left behind.
“Metaverse is the bridge where fans will walk across, and, ultimately, they will end up becoming part of the (immersive) experience,” he said. “All these sports (leagues) get the value, because they’re losing their audiences to gaming.”
Meeting young people where they are
The NFL renewed its partnership with Nickelodeon and last fall debuted a weekly TV show (NFL Slimetime). As part of the renewal, the network aired the wild-card game between the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys last month. That telecast featured virtual graphics and cameos from network stars like SpongeBob SquarePants. It was a way to introduce the sport to kids who may never have watched and another example of the NFL attempting to both engage and educate fans.
As kids start to transition out of the Nickelodeon years, the league is waiting for them on Instagram, which is the social-media platform that most teens use (81%), according to a study conducted by investment bank Piper Sandler. The NFL partnered with Instagram’s Playmakers program back in 2020 in a move that distributes content in a different style and shorter intervals.
To penetrate the esports world—which earns over $1 billion a year globally—the NFL announced this week it will continue to collaborate with FaZe Clan through brand and content activations. The esports entertainment organization, valued at $1 billion in a SPAC deal, employs a strong list of influencers, from hip-hop stars such as Offset to Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray.
Of course, there are plenty of gamers among NFL players. From Baker Mayfield’s Fortnite dance to Boston Scott’s position on the Dignitas’ Rocket League team, NFLers have embraced gaming more than ever, which connects the league to the gaming audience without any effort on its part.
And while the NFL has been a part of The Madden Bowl for years, this week saw the first-ever streamed athlete broadcast featuring NFL stars Derwin James and Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, bringing esports directly to fans. Outside of Madden, this week also had a host of NFL players competing in the Streamer Bowl III—the third iteration of a partnership between the players union, Twitch Rivals and Fortnite developer Epic Games.
The extended partnership with FaZe Clan is perhaps the greatest recent example of the league’s multi-pronged approach, as part of the deal includes teaming up for a co-branded, live-streamed flag football game ahead of the Super Bowl. The league looks to leverage Faze Clan’s audience on YouTube and Twitch channels while simultaneously promoting youth flag football.
‘We want women to play’
Jennifer Brown Lerner, a flag-football mom, has enjoyed the camaraderie and community bonding the sport has provided, but when it comes to tackle, she remains hesitant. While her son, a 12-year-old, hasn’t reached high school yet, Lerner is uncertain that she would be fine with him suiting up in pads.
“I’m going to have a hard time thinking that tackle football is the right decision for my kids,” said Lerner, who also serves as deputy director for the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program.
Her concerns aren’t unusual. She’s one of millions of mothers trying to weigh the potential dangers of letting their children play tackle football, with its risks of concussions and traumatic brain injuries. It’s likely one of the reasons there’s been a decline in 11-person football over the last decade, according to a 2019 study by National Federation of State High School Associations.
So preserving the traditions around the game at the grassroots level may prove to be just as important as appealing to the demands of moms. The NFL and its 32 clubs are active in their local markets to evolve the narrative from violent sport to safe competitive pastime.
The league also aims to drive participation in girls’ flag football, as it has led efforts to get the sport officially sanctioned in schools across states like Georgia and Florida.
“We want women to play so that they become fans and they get involved in the game administratively or as coaches,” said Roman Oben, who oversees the NFL’s youth and high school strategy. “Or they become moms that let their kids play as well. That’s why we have to embrace flag in the football community.”
The Sports & Fitness Industry Association reported that participation in team sports was down 3.8 million players in 2020 amid the pandemic. Flag football, however, was one of four sports (ultimate Frisbee, indoor and outdoor soccer) that saw growth. The NFL, which runs the largest youth flag football organization, is banking on these numbers to keep rising.
NFL vice president of marketing strategy Amanda Herald says youth flag football and health initiatives are just another part of the puzzle when reeling in the future generation of fans, along with pushes in social media, music, gaming and community programs.
“Our goal is to have a well-rounded program that taps into all the different ways that youth are spending time and that are important for our brand to really show up and in a meaningful way.”