I’ve run a marathon, and several half-marathons. I couldn’t dream of being fast enough to qualify for Boston, but I do know something about the amount of effort and heart these runners put into getting ready for a great race today. It’s early morning long runs, and breath-sucking speed workouts, and aches and pains and injury and gradually learning to tell the difference between aches and pain and injury. It’s months of sacrifice (not least from our family members putting up with the odors we bring back from early morning long runs). Likewise for the race volunteers – people who took time out of their busy lives on a crisp spring day to help others have the smoothest, most memorable day possible. And the end of a marathon… it’s chaos and exhaustion, but it’s also about the closest I’ve ever come to feeling grace in a real way. Pure, earned grace.
A tragedy like what happened today is obviously going to be incomprehensible and awful no matter when and where it happens. But for it to be directed at people who are literally finishing one of their life’s most memorable moments… it just tears me up. My thoughts and prayers are with all the victims.
As we prepare for the most Harbaugh of all Super Bowls, it’s worth noting that every Super Bowl is a celebration for the NFL. Not only is it the most publicized annual event in America (and typically the most watched TV broadcast of the year), but each one also serves as the culmination of another successful season for the league. And when I say success, I’m talking serious financial success:
Some of what makes the NFL so uniquely successful in the US is specific to their business. For example, their product looks amazing on TV, and as we’ve brought better TV’s into our homes, football has certainly reaped the benefits. But there are also some lessons that all businesses can learn from the NFL. Here’s four of them.
1. Your customers’ experience is your product. The NFL is not just the physical sport played on a 120 yard x 53 yard field. It’s also the experience at home for the estimated 18 million fans who tune in for every game. It’s taking advantage of the proliferation of HD, and now 3D, televisions to showcase the product in a better way than ever before. It’s the experience of Sunday Ticket, which lets fans watch their favorite team even if they live 3,000 miles away. It’s also the experience at the stadium, which can include a Syria-sized HD display, unique behind-the-scenes access for season ticket holders, and all kinds of entertainment that has nothing to do with football. And now, the experience also includes taking the NFL anywhere, via mobile. Wherever and (more importantly) however fans want to experience the NFL, the league is happy to oblige.
2. Opportunities can come from anywhere – and anybody. Fifteen years ago, almost none of us had even heard of fantasy football. The game originated in the 1960′s, its first rules defined by a handful of Oakland Raiders employees, but it stayed underground for 30 years. CBS launched the first free fantasy football site in 1997, to the delight of approximately 74 hardcore geeks. (I think I joined my first league the following year. Early-follower geek!) By 2000, almost every competing sports site was in on the action. Now? About 30 million Americans play fantasy football every year. Thirty. Million. How fantastic is that for the NFL? Enormously. One way to quantify it – 55 percent of fantasy players report watching more football on TV since they started playing fantasy sports. Fantasy football is a part of popular culture, and amazingly, it’s even become kinda, sorta chic.
The key here is that the NFL didn’t create fantasy football. And you, Mr. or Mrs. Businessperson, don’t have to come up with every revenue-booming or customer-delighting idea for your company. But you have to build an ecosystem that people will care about, and one where they can apply their creativity to help both your business and theirs flourish.
3. There is no offseason. The NFL captures America’s attention in an almost singular way from the beginning of the season in September through the first week in February. But it doesn’t go dormant for the other seven months of the year – certainly not for its most ardent fans, anyway. Best example of this: the NFL Draft, held each April. The draft is where teams select their new young players out of college, but for fans, it’s also the most important source of hope – especially if you support a team that didn’t make the playoffs. (Hell, as a Jets fan, I can remember years where our draft chatter started in October.) And the draft – basically a recruitment and photo opportunity – has become massively popular on its own rights.
Most businesses don’t have as clearly defined an “offseason”. But they can find ways to use lulls in their marketing, sales and production cycles to their advantage – to entice fans even more for their next wave of purchasing / usage.
4. Treat your stars differently. In the NFL, quarterbacks are the meal ticket. Casual fans love quarterbacks passing for a lot of yards, they love quarterbacks getting sacked by even larger men, and they love touchdowns, of which 60% originate from quarterbacks. Summary: fans heart QB’s. (One way to illustrate this: the seven best-selling NFL jerseys this year were all QB’s.)
And so it’s perhaps no surprise that the NFL protects quarterbacks like they were Fabergé eggs. Every major rule change over the past 15 years has favored offense in general, and many have specifically favored quarterbacks and passing offenses. Maybe some NFL insiders feel it’s gone too far, but I think they’re missing the point. The NFL is going to protect its most valuable employees / assets.
In management, we’re often taught to treat every employee the same, to promote fairness and avoid resentment. And sure, that’s true to an extent. Every hard-working employee is entitled to a fair paycheck, fair benefits, and a sense of respect in their workplace. But complete equality? No, because every employee isn’t equally important to an organization meeting its goals.
5. Identify your biggest threats, and address them head-on. I mention this because the NFL has done an AWFUL job of following this over the past few years. The biggest threat to the long-term existence of professional football isn’t pro baseball or basketball (and certainly not that receding-towards-minor-league-status pastime known as hockey). There’s more than enough consumer money, eyeballs, and media attention for all of those sports to succeed simultaneously, as has been proven over the past two decades. The biggest threat isn’t booming player salaries – again, players have been paid handsomely for decades, and owners are still able to afford a Happy Meal or two.
No, the biggest threat to the NFL over the next few decades is the perception of player safety. An alarming number of football players have died early in their post-retirement lives, either via the cumulative impact of physical trauma or football-related mental illnesses, or a combination of both. And there’s a perception – backed by at least a fair amount of truth – that the league dragged its feet in understanding and communicating about these issues. Now, the NFL is taking tangible steps to address player safety, but the vast majority of current players still don’t trust their teams’ medical staffs to look out for their health interests.
The long-term impact of this could be the only conceivable death-sentence scenario for the NFL: parents not allowing their kids play football, because they consider it too dangerous. So while the demand for the sport would stay intact, the supply of outstanding athletes choosing football over other sports would diminish, and so would the quality of the product.
While perhaps unlikely, it’s possible that the NFL has acted too late in addressing this, their single greatest threat. And for any business, that’s unconscionable. Great managers understand that every threat to their business isn’t created equal. They figure out which one (or two) are the most ominous. Not just today, but years into the future. And then, they do everything they can to address it. They examine different options. They consult objective experts in that subject. They use their media and social networks to talk openly about the issue and how they’re trying to address it. And they rinse and repeat this process until the threat is neutralized.
Perhaps then, that’s the last lesson the NFL can teach us: that even the most successful organizations make significant mistakes, and can learn from them.
There are a bucketful of different techniques to persuade people towards your point of view. You can appeal to their social needs – their desire to belong, to fit in, to be appreciated. You can appeal to their financial needs – make it worth their while to join you, or provide a disincentive for not joining you. You can show passion for your perspective, or for the people who would be affected. You can create a list of straight facts, allow them to absorb those facts and feel empowered by their self-driven realization that your viewpoint has merit. You can attack the opposing viewpoint, or perhaps attack the person themselves. (Hey, I didn’t say all these techniques were good ones.) And on and on.
What you can’t do is make someone listen.
If someone wants to shut themselves off from any opposing views, no amount of persuasion will make an iota of difference. And you’ll simply get increasingly frustrated if you keep trying to persuade. It’s like using a spoon to break through a brick wall. “You know what would work better? A bigger spoon.” No, friend, it won’t.
So when you’re not getting the response you want (and feel you deserve) from someone, it’s worth taking a step back and asking yourself: am I not being persuasive in the right ways, or is the other person simply not open to listening? Am I facing a spoon problem, or a wall problem?
Is college getting less affordable over time?
That’s certainly conventional wisdom. A Pew Research Center survey in 2011 found that 75% of adults believe “college is too expensive for most Americans to afford”. That same study found that economics is the single biggest reason many young adults choose not to go to college at all.
Of course, most parents and students know this, and they start preparing financially for the possibility of college years beforehand by saving money and investing it in the stock market. But does that work? How does the growth of college costs really match up with the typical growth of stock investments?
Here’s what it looks like over the past 30 years.
Hey, that’s great! Over the past generation, the money you invested in the S+P 500 would’ve grown faster than the rise in college costs (tuition plus fees) at both private and public institutions. (By the way, the pattern for two-year schools looks very similar to that of four-year private schools.)
But before you pop open your nice bottle of champagne… here’s the same chart for just the past 15 years:
Well, that’s a big ball of suck. Both public and private college costs have continued to climb steadily throughout the 2000′s, while the stock market has barely treaded water. Public schools obviously started at lower cost levels than private schools, but that gap is narrowing somewhat.
So yes, college is getting less affordable over time, even after adjusting for inflation and your money growing. For those of us with young kids (or thinking of having kids), we’re left with a few choices:
- Push for legislative changes to cap college tuition cost increases, particularly at state-funded schools, and to continue or even expand tax incentives for college enrollment.
- Encourage donors and external funding sources to provide more scholarships and grants for students. And research the hell out of existing sources.
- Hope the stock market has a decade-long upswing. It’s happened before (see the mid- to late-1990′s), so at least there’s precedent.
- Somehow find ways to save up a lot more money in the years ahead.
- Find occupations that don’t require a college education. Millions of Americans are doing very well without a college degree. Unfortunately, the overall number of non-degree jobs available continues to shrink, which leads to higher long-term unemployment for that segment, as well as other potential disadvantages.
- If all else fails, consider creative means of supplemental income generation.
Life is better now than it used to be.
You might disagree with that statement, but well, I’m afraid you’d be unquestionably and almost comically wrong. Others have compiled lists of the ways in which things have improved, written books about it, and even conducted real, peer-reviewed research to back up that statement. So I’ll just give an abridged list of some of my favorite signs of progress:
- Social justice, in all forms. No, we’re far from full success on this front, but we’re equally far beyond our past failings in this area. On a personal level – I’m a short brown man with middling physical strength and poor eyesight. What the heck would I have been good for 100 years ago? Fetching tea for a British magistrate in Bombay, if I was very very lucky. That’s no way to go through life.
- Air conditioning. A mere luxury? Ha! A/C facilitated the advent of motion picture halls, which led to a boom in the desire for commercial entertainment. The result: a $100 billion worldwide entertainment industry that creates millions of jobs, and allows us to experience humor and drama and all ranges of emotion through art almost anywhere, at any time. Speaking of which…
- The Internet. You’ve successfully found your way to a blog post, so I don’t need to explain this one in detail, right? I’ll simply mention that I have an almost limitless curiosity about stuff – all kinds of stuff – and the Internet allows me to learn about and experience said stuff in a way I never could have dreamed of even 20 years ago. (Even if I had one of these.)
- Coffee. Now easily accessible in virtually any corner of the world. Thank God.
Now, I’m not Pollyannaish. I obviously understand that there are many tragedies, large and small, throughout our nation, our world, and our own personal lives. We have indescribable poverty within our (overall) very rich United States. We have diseases that still seem incurable (until they’re not). We have mediocre educational systems, and cable “news” networks (see how I lumped those together?).
But overall, the trend is real, and consistent, and enduring, and positive.
And here’s why this matters: if you don’t believe that things are better now, and that the majority of things will continue to improve, you should not be working in marketing, or business in general, or education, or any other field where you have the ability to actually impact that future in some small but not insignificant way.
This is an amazing time to inhabit this planet. And it’s going to become more amazing because there are people who believe that’s what should happen, and work to make it so.
So, optimists: come on in, join us! Pessimists: thanks, but we don’t need you. Stay outside, moaning about the good ol’ days, while you Skype with your uncle halfway around the world, sip your organic hazelnut latte, and breathe relatively clean air.
(And so-called “realists”: you’re welcome to come in, but we’re keeping an eye on you.)
Some quotes – from the professionals and regular citizens – about the election.
“President Obama was re-elected, relying on a coalition of voters that was broader than it was deep. Democrats maintained an edge in party identification, allowing Mr. Obama to win despite losing independent voters by several points. Forty-five percent of those who voted for Mr. Obama were racial minorities, a record number, and he actually made gains among Hispanic and Asian-American voters.” (FiveThirtyEight.com)
“The Obama campaign ran a very good campaign. The Republicans did not. There was no fraud. There was no stealing the election. There was just a really good ground game from Barack Obama and a lot of smoke and mirrors from Team Romney and outside charlatans, many of whom will now go work for Republican Super PACs making six figure salaries, further draining the pockets of rich Republicans when not on television explaining how awesome and expert they are. Whether you can bring yourself to say it or not, like it or not, Barack Obama is, today, your President. … There will be a lot of blame to go around, but, if Republicans are honest, they’ll have to concede that the Romney campaign ran a bad campaign and only almost won because the President had a bad debate.” (Conservative blog RedState.com, via NPR)
“Most Americans have markedly more pragmatic concerns than those who speak in apocalyptic terms about America’s future. They worry about jobs and how to preserve manufacturing against competition from globalisation. They are wary of redistribution towards the poor but made anxious by talk of painful reforms to such middle-class entitlement programmes as Medicare, the federally-backed health-insurance scheme for the elderly. Many women tell pollsters that they resent male politicians presuming to dictate to them about contraception and abortion. Above all, ordinary voters are desperate for more bipartisan cooperation, and furious with the gridlock in Washington.” (Economist.com)
“If I hear anybody say it was because Romney wasn’t conservative enough I’m going to go nuts. We’re not losing 95 percent of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics and voters under 30 because we’re not being hard-ass enough.” (Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC)
“Republicans construe Democratic positions … as socialism and international decline. Democrats construe the Republican positions as social darwinism and militant imperialism. How you do end up with a populace split evenly between these radical belief structures?My basic take is that the stable, narrow, bitter partisan divide in America is a phenomenon driven by an interaction between two major players: the parties themselves, and the media. … The media, and this can’t be repeated often enough, is overwhelmingly biased towards producing exciting political races. Horse-race reporting gives the media the collective ability to shape the kind of narrative it needs in order to report excitingly. The increasing interaction between mass media and social media seems only to exacerbate this tendency: both mass-media analysts and private social-media contributors are rewarded for sharply divisive characterisations.” (link)
“Like the Democrats in the 80s this is the moment of change they [Republicans] need to heed or be relegated to the fringe at the national level. What we learned today is the Social Conservative is dying quickly and could only be saved by some sort of advanced life extending technology that keeps old southern white people alive for 150 years.” (link)
“A Michigan voter stopped breathing and his heart stopped beating while he sat filling out a ballot. Alerted by the man’s wife, a paramedic revived him. When he came to, he asked: ‘Did I vote?’ His wife said that was the least of their concerns. He said his most important concerns were ‘That I love you and that I finished what I came here to do … vote.’ He had.” (DailyKos)
“Good news for Mitt Romney, he has tonight won most of the Confederacy.” (The Daily Show With Jon Stewart)