Getting on the ball

How the NFL can keep its fan base, community standing, and cash flow

Over the last 30 years, the Super Bowl has evolved into a religious experience for face-painting fans, complete with mountains of guacamole and rivers of Bud Light. But to what extent can the NFL keep its core fan base tuned in at a time when the economy and the antics of its players threaten its stranglehold on continued financial success?

The roots of this televised extravaganza can be traced in large part to the market research and broadcasting refinement that has allowed Monday Night Football
to thrive for the last 31 years. Added production units, increased use of on-air analysis, and carefully orchestrated stadium shots highlighting enthusiastic fans resulted in a masterfully packaged piece of sports programming-one that continues to draw top-10 TV audiences year in and year out.

The 2001 version of this ideal blend of technology, pageantry and competition will be on display Jan. 28 in Tampa, Fla., as the NFL reinforces its broadcast dominance during Super Bowl XXXV.

But as well-packaged and -presented as football may have been throughout the 1970s, it did not achieve its icon status as a programming jewel until the 1980s when corporate America fully appreciated the coveted audiences the sport consistently provided.

When sports marketing exploded onto the scene during the '80s, properties that regularly delivered the elusive male demographic found themselves ideally situated to cash in. And cash in they did. Broadcast-rights fees for sports have soared over the last decade with the NFL's eight-year, $17.2 billion contract with Fox, CBS, ABC and ESPN serving as the benchmark by which all other rights fees are measured.

However, the NFL is not without its challenges. The cost of attending a game has become prohibitive for all but a few non-corporate fans. And the corporate fans in attendance are poised to rethink their lofty investment in sports as the economy cools. And as if this were not concern enough, players' off-field behavior continues to threaten the NFL's pristine brand name.

According to Team Marketing Report, it now costs a family of four an average of $278 to attend a game. This expense, which includes the cost of four average-price tickets, four small soft drinks, two small beers, four hot dogs, parking, two game programs and two adult-size caps, surpasses $300 for seven NFL teams. It's pretty tough to embrace a new generation of fans when many of them cannot afford to set foot in an NFL stadium.

As the economy begins to cool and corporations seek ways to trim discretionary spending, sports leagues, particularly the NFL, will have to demonstrate that they deliver an acceptable level of return for sponsors and advertisers or risk losing a portion of their most significant cash flow.

The NFL must stress its value to everyday and corporate fans at a time when its players are increasingly seen giving the league a bad name. For example, one of its players, Rae Carruth, is currently on trial for murder in Charlotte, N.C., while another, Ray Lewis, faced double murder charges for his role in an altercation last January in Atlanta, where he had been attending the Super Bowl.

These developments concerning the League's customer base and image must be quickly addressed in order for the NFL to continue its prosperity and standing as sports' premier brand.

To accomplish this, the NFL must embrace its own tradition by allowing emerging technology, including the Internet and the streaming video it offers, to capture the imagination of a new generation of fans. It must allow the networks and NFL Films to continue to develop technical innovations of NFL coverage to help maintain-and expand-the attention spans of impatient TV viewers. Finally, leveraging its stellar public relations will allow the League to reinforce one of its core strengths as that of community leader.

Ultimately, allowing its avid fan base to not only shape the future of the sport but to define it will serve the NFL well and protect its precious cash flow from sponsors and advertisers. Given the track record of the NFL and its visionary leadership, there is little reason to believe that the face painters will be changing their allegiances any time soon.