Has the NFL Lost a Step for Marketers?

All my life, NFL football has been the most popular, most important sport in America — perhaps the most popular and important event of any kind! But that popularity dipped in 2016. And on the eve of the 2017 season, I don’t feel like the league’s recovered.

All my life, NFL football has been the most popular, most important sport in America — perhaps the most popular and important event of any kind! The league just seemed to get more important every year, and the marketing space around it only became bigger and more valuable over that time.

But that popularity dipped in 2016. And on the eve of the 2017 season, I don’t feel like the league’s recovered.

NFL 2016: A Titan Stumbles

Coming into the 2016 NFL season, ad prices hit record levels. According to Kurt Badenhausen at Forbes and Standard Media Index, NFL ad revenue in 2016 hit $3.5 billion, a 3 percent increase over the prior year.

At the same time, over the course of 2016, NFL regular season TV ratings were down roughly 9 percent.

This did not pass without notice. Salon and ESPN were just two of many media outlets who openly asked, “What’s wrong with the NFL?”

AHas the NFL lost a step for maketers?nswers ranged from ratings competition with a contentious election season to cord cutters to the political and disciplinary controversies that seemed to envelop the league. Tom Brady, one of the league’s biggest stars, was suspended for several games, and some thought that alone accounted for the ratings dip.

But then the playoffs arrived, Tom Brady was back on top, and the Super Bowl was one of the five highest rated games in history (although it still had the lowest ratings for a Super Bowl in three years).

Dip traversed! The NFL was back … wasn’t it?

NFL 2017: Is Football Still Cool?

As a fan of the NFL, I have to say, this offseason was one of the least engaging I’ve ever seen. Around the office in Philadelphia — possibly the most intense football city in America — the sports talk seems quieter. Fewer younger colleagues are football fans … the sport has started to feel like, just maybe, it’s uncool.

Even around old sports fan friends, when I do talk about the NFL, there’s a 50/50 chance the talk will turn to  political aspects. We wind up talking about Colin Kaepernick, player discipline, Tom Brady and “Deflategate,” or other controversies around the game instead of the game itself.

With casual fans, concussions and CTE immediately come up.

But OK, those are just my circles; football isn’t really cooling off, is it?

Well, according to the league upfronts, where they actually sell those fabulously expensive ad,  it’s not just me. AdAge reported in June that interest in NFL advertising for the 2017 season was the softest it’s been since 2008 — the heart of The Great Recession. Ad prices are still rising somewhat — one source in the article says 2 percent to 4 percent this year — but there’s not a lot of excitement in the traditional media space.

The NFL is no longer entirely reliant on old media and the upfronts, though. Several social media networks have acquired rites to stream games themselves in recent years.

This year, Amazon is reportedly pricing ad packages around games at $2.8 million. In fact, Amazon’s packages would include a 30-second spot during the game, digital ads before and after the game, and a promise of unprecedented transparency into the ads’ performance and sales impact.

But is that enough to offset tepid TV advertiser interest?

This year is going to tell us a lot about the state of the NFL as a cultural institution, and as a marketing vehicle. Was last year’s dip just due to circumstance? Or is this marketing superstar finally past its prime?