5 lessons your business can learn from the NFL

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:

Estimated 2012 revenue for the four major sports: NFL $9.5 billion
Chart from Business Insider

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.

“Big payday for both of us, bro!”

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.

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