While other sports leagues and live entertainment competitors rushed to leverage the rapid growth of the internet and digital media revolution into their core business models, the National Football League (“NFL”) rested on its traditional positioning as the leader in live entertainment, consumed by its viewers through in-person ticket sales and television broadcasts. Although the NFL grew revenue to $12.2 billion in 2015 (Ozanian, 2016), the league’s inability to embrace digitalization has appeared to negatively impact its business model with television ratings down 11% year-over-year through week 10 of the 2016 season (Brown, 2016). Despite the NFL’s slow digital integration and recent negative business trends, the league has implemented several key initiatives in its business strategy and operating model to try to catch-up to the wave of digital trends.
For decades, the core gameplay of the NFL remained consistent – quarterbacks received play calls from coaches via hand-signals or direct communication; coaches would review handwritten or printed copies of plays or defensive coverages with players on the sideline; and there was little-to-no ability to track the metrics of how a player was performing on the field. In 1994, the league first approved helmet radio technology between a coach and quarterback to speed up gameplay, and in 2012 made additional strides in this technology by switching headset signals from analog to digital, which improved sound quality and reduced interference (National Football League, 2016). The NFL even expanded wireless headsets to referees in 2014 to allow for more effective communication between officials before plays and to discuss penalties more quickly (National Football League, 2016).
In addition to implementing digital technology into headsets, the league made a huge change to gameplay operations by implementing the use of Microsoft Surface tablets in 2014 (National Football League, 2016). The tablets allow coaches and players to review digital images of plays and formations on the sideline, which enhances the strategic competitiveness of teams during gameplay and provides an enhanced viewing experience for consumers.
Despite the positive impact of digital technology on NFL gameplay, the impact of digital on the in-person and television / media viewing experience is the most difficult challenge facing the NFL’s long-term strategy today. Although initially believed to be driven by an increase in millennial fans, the NFL recognized that a decline in game attendance was driven by all fans’ desire for enhanced connectivity and accessibility during games (Maddox, 2016). Therefore, the NFL implemented an initiative to install wi-fi in every stadium across the league in 2014 – today, only three stadiums do not have wi-fi (Maddox, 2016). The importance of wi-fi was displayed on the NFL’s biggest stage when over 10.1 terabytes of data were transferred over the wi-fi at the newly opened Levi’s Stadium during Super Bowl 50 in February 2016. This data usage marked a 63% increase over Super Bowl 49 and was the highest data usage ever seen at a single sports and entertainment event (Maddox, Super Bowl 50 smashes data records with 10.1TB flying across Wi-Fi, 2016).
In addition to needing to address the in-person viewing experience at stadiums, the NFL has had to address a shift in viewers consuming games from traditional paid-television formats to alternative forms of media. To address this shift, the NFL has launched several digital media initiatives. In 2015, Yahoo! became the first website to livestream in NFL game (Dave, 2015), and in 2016, the league pushed into social media by launching a partnership with Twitter to stream ten Thursday night games and becoming the first sports team to have a presence on Snapchat’s Discover page (Arora, 2016). The NFL has also focused on revamping its NFL mobile app through its exclusive partnership with Verizon (Elberse, 2010).
Although the NFL may have been late to the digital revolution, the league has clearly taken significant strides in adapting its gameplay and viewing experience as part of its overall business and operating models. Nevertheless, there are still several key initiatives that the league should implement to ensure its success going forward:
- Gameplay – Continue to take strides to improve the on-field product for fans by utilizing advances in technology to increase the competitiveness of the games while improving the safety of the leagues greatest asset: the players
- Stadium Viewing – Use new mobile technology to enhance the in-game experience and engage fans directly in their seats. Implement best in-class mobile stadium enhancements such as in-seat concessions ordering and restroom tracking across all venues
- Television / Media Viewing – Focus on monetizing consumers at the point-of-consumption. Accept the fact that traditional viewing formats are evolving and the NFL must evolve with it while finding new ways to engage viewers (787 words)
Arora, S. (2016, September 7). Technology Meets the Real World – NFL Goes Digital. Retrieved from MarTech Advisor: http://www.martechadvisor.com/articles/ads/technologymeetstherealworldnflgoesdigital/
Brown, M. (2016, November 15). Here’s the Real Reasons NFL TV Ratings Will Continue Downward. Retrieved from Forbes.com: http://www.forbes.com/sites/maurybrown/2016/11/15/herestherealreasonswhynfltvratingswillcontinuedownward/
Dave, P. (2015, September 4). NFL putting its online playbook to the test. Retrieved from latimes.com: http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-nfl-digital-20150904-story.html
Elberse, A. C. (2010). The NFL’s Digital Media Strategy. Boston: Harvard Business School.
Maddox, T. (2016). How the NFL and its stadiums became leaders in Wi-Fi, monetizing apps, and customer experience. Retrieved from TechRepublic: http://www.techrepublic.com/article/how-the-nfl-and-its-stadiums-became-leaders-in-wi-fi-monetizing-apps-and-customer-experience/
Maddox, T. (2016, February 10). Super Bowl 50 smashes data records with 10.1TB flying across Wi-Fi. Retrieved from TechRepublic: http://www.techrepublic.com/article/super-bowl-50-smashes-data-records-with-10-1tb-flying-across-wifi/
National Football League. (2016). Technology. Retrieved from NFL.com: http://operations.nfl.com/the-game/technology/
Ozanian, M. (2016, September 14). The NFL’s Most Valuable Teams 2016. Retrieved from Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikeozanian/2016/09/14/thenflsmostvaluableteams2016