The NFL’s power extends beyond the game

Mitchell Hartman Sep 11, 2014
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The NFL’s power extends beyond the game

Mitchell Hartman Sep 11, 2014
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This year’s Super Bowl XLVIII was the most-watched event on U.S. television ever, attracting more than 111 million viewers. Its nearest competition? Other Super Bowls.

If a brand wants to play with the big boys in sports, it pretty much has to play with the NFL.

“The NFL stands out in all of the different revenue sources, and not just by a little bit, but by leaps and bounds over the other sports,” says Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist.

Those NFL revenue streams — from ticket sales, sports stadiums, TV rights, Super Bowl ads, and a lot of merchandising — bring in more than $9 billion annually to the league and team owners. Players endorsing shoes and credit cards generates more revenue, and also generates sales for sporting goods and apparel companies like Nike. Fantasy football betting is taking off, as well.

But the sport is now facing multiple controversies: former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice’s assault on his then-fiancée and how much NFL officials knew about it, last year’s bullying scandal and concussions and their consequences.

Zimbalist doesn’t see these problems undermining the NFL’s reputational value to sponsoring brands like Gatorade, Marriott or FedEx.

“Because [football] is the most popular spectator sport in the United States, it derives a certain amount of insulation from some of the social criticisms that it receives,” Zimbalist says.

Football’s popularity, especially as a spectator sport, can seem mysterious. The ball is only in play for about 20 minutes of the over-three-hour broadcast.

Jonathan Taplin at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab says even with the short ball-in-play time, the violence of football appeals to a desirable prime-age male demographic.

The pacing is ideal for broadcast, too.

“Football is actually a perfect collective viewing experience,” Taplin says, “because it’s actually the time between the plays when people can discuss things, get a beer, go over to the guacamole. A basketball game is so intense, if you’re in a room with a bunch of people and someone’s talking, they’ll shout ‘shut up and watch the game.’”

Taplin points out that all the major spectator sports are good for TV networks because fans want to watch in real time, rather than using a DVR and watching later — without the ads. Fans want to know how their team did, and how it affects their chances of making it into postseason play. Pro football teams only play 16 regular-season games, compared to about 80 in basketball or hockey and 162 in baseball. Marketers like that, Taplin says, because football fans form a mass market that’s heavily concentrated in fall weekend time slots.


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