NFL Marketing Takes a Page from Hollywood’s Playbook

Emotion and Entertainment Drive Marketing

It’s kick-off time for the new NFL season and anticipation is running high. Fans love the comradery, they love the players, and they are passionate about their favorite team. Enthusiasts watched every step of the draft and are keeping tabs on individual player and team stats year-round. Many who aren’t as focused on the details and behind-the-scenes action still experience football as entertainment and a big part of their social life.

With the stage set, the NFL’s marketing strategy this season is based on two insights. “First, we want to harness the excitement, emotional feelings and the hope that everybody has for their team as the new season starts,” said Dawn Hudson, CMO of the NFL. The second insight influencing this year’s strategy is the opportunity to have fans engage with the sport as they would other forms of entertainment, “taking a page from the entertainment industry playbook.”

Let the Show Begin

On September 7th, the NFL launched a marketing campaign with the umbrella theme “Let the Show Begin.” Produced with a cinematic feel, the spots weave the stories of NFL players from coast-to-coast on their “way to work” – in this case football fields – with dramatic images that bring to life how important the game is to the fans. Taking a page from Netflix and HBO show openers, which use music that has become as famous as the shows themselves, the NFL campaign is built on dramatic new music debuted by Grammy Award winning artist, Miguel, underscoring the intensity and excitement around the coming season.

Mirroring movie teaser campaigns, “Let the Show Begin” rolls out in four phases throughout the 16 week regular season. Phase I focuses on the Kickoff or the start of the season and the excitement and hopes surrounding it. Phase II, Unpredictability, reflects the fan experience with teams performing stronger or weaker than expected. Phase III is the Drive phase, expressing the nail-biting march to the playoffs. Bringing the season to its culmination is Phase IV, Survival, highlighting the elite teams who make it into the playoffs.

The campaign will include 30-second and 60-second spots for TV with the first one spotlighting the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos, and Seattle Seahawks.  Thirty-two versions of the spot announcing the new season will be produced, covering a wide array of content and players. There will be seven-second and 15-second short videos for social media platforms, and radio spots as well.

Leading up to the campaign, the NFL has had two national marketing programs underway. Random Acts of Kickoff (#RandomActsofKickoff) involves team rallies and surprise player and celebrity appearances at events supporting non-profit organizations in cities across the country. The PlayFootball (@NFLPlayFootball) youth campaign, which runs from August to September, celebrates the start of both the high school football season and the pro season by promoting the fun of being part of the larger football community, whether enjoying the comradery as players or as fans. 

Constantly Refreshing the Audience

While nearly 70 percent of Americans are football fans, Hudson and her team are constantly seeking to engage the next generation of fans. From a brand standpoint the NFL wants to remain on the forefront on popular culture in order to ensure that the brand doesn’t get old, or seen as something that your parents followed that may no longer be relevant. There is no mistaking that this year’s campaign is aimed at the millennial and younger side of fan demographics.

Hudson is motivated by the challenge “…to take a brand that has been around for more than 100 years and reaches out to more than two-thirds of all Americans, it’s important to keep the brand vibrant and to do unexpected things.”

The league relies heavily on highlighting the power of the players as a way to relate with younger audiences. The power of players is more than just physical prowess on the field, as seen in such programs as the “My Cause, My Cleats” campaign, which encourages players to wear footwear that represents causes they care about the week after Thanksgiving. For an organization with a notoriously strict dress code, this was an unexpected twist and gave fans a fresh experience with the NFL. It allowed players to give national visibility to charities they care about and allowed fans to connect on a more personal level with the players – something to which younger audiences with a greater awareness of social issues respond. Launched in 2016, fans can look forward to a repeat and refresh of this promotion in the current season. 

Play by Play Fascination Feeds Social

The NFL is constantly experimenting with new ways for fans to access and engage with its content, as evidenced by their recent deal making Amazon Prime the exclusive partner to live stream Thursday Night Football to a global audience across devices during the 2017 NFL season.

Football is iterative and very social with a lot of communication throughout the game happening both off and online. People love to text about what is going to happen and take to social media platforms to talk about why one play worked or another didn’t. The NFL generates a wealth of rich social media interactions and content to utilize for new fan development through social media space. Social feeds like @NFL on Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram give fans more access to commentary and behind-the-scenes footage, and encourage clubs and players to further connect with fans on social platforms.

Additionally, the NFL has recently had a greater focus on integrating AR technology. According to Hudson, while VR actually can make you distant and takes away from the social component of football, using AR gives fans a more immersive game viewing experience. Taking advantage of this opportunity, the organization is opening an NFL Experience in Times Square this November in which AR will play a big part. Fans will be able to go through and feel what it’s like to be a fan on the field.

Unpredictability Keeps Fans Coming Back

Professional sports leagues and teams spend an enormous amount of money on marketing. They compete for fan attention with all sectors of entertainment, and with every other sport and team. That said, professional football provides a unique experience that appeals to fans. “Someone told me that for basketball we can put two stars on the court 50 percent of the time [and] we can predict the outcome,” says Hudson. “[In football] every play is unpredictable and anything can happen. Our marketing needs to lean into the anticipation, celebration, play-to-play emotion of the game that makes fans so connected.”

Ivy Cohen

Ivy Cohen

President at Ivy Cohen Corporate Communications
Ivy Cohen
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