ANALYSIS: Client Profile - NFL PR is not all fun and games

The game is popular. The owners, coaches and players are


The National Football League couldn't possibly have any PR problems,

right? Not so. Carolyn Myles spent three days listening in on the NFL's

annual PR pow-wow in Nashville, TN.

As the National Football League (NFL) spends this month combing the

country for the best college athletes, football fans are gearing up for

the new season.

Though the league has brushed off the 'challenge' from the upstart XFL,

it still has a number of tasks to iron out, not the least of which is

shoring up sponsorships and keeping its viewers glued to the TV.

These subjects are discussed at the annual PR get-together - the same

one that has taken place each year since 1940 - which involves 150 PR

people from all 31 franchises. Last month, communication teams involved

in the National Football Conference (NFC) and the American Football

Conference (AFC) met for three days in Nashville, TN to swap ideas and

update their colleagues.

PR issues

Surprisingly, the NFL faces issues that are not all that different from

other corporations in America. The teams are in need of commercial

alliances, they face legal issues in Washington, DC and their

performance is under the media microscope at all times. The only

difference is the NFL's coaches are the CEOs and the players are some of

the wealthiest people in the country.

One major issue for the marketing staff is sponsorships. Few would think

that finding financial support would be a problem for a pro football

team, but they too see programs in jeopardy when sponsors pull out.

The Carolina Panthers are seeking a new sponsor for a school physical

fitness program. Their individual team sponsor, Nike, pulled out after

the NFL replaced the sports manufacturer with rival Reebok. Meanwhile

the Seattle Seahawks are trying to find a partner for a statewide

literacy program after a bank stepped out.

William Bryant, assistant director of media relations for the Tennessee

Titans, says: 'People on the outside forget it's a business.' He often

gets critical calls when the team releases popular players, but he

emphasizes, 'It's a business decision.'

It sure is. One doesn't plop down dollars 800 million for a franchise,

as Daniel Snyder did in the case of the Washington Redskins, without

wanting a payback.

That price was the highest paid yet for an NFL franchise.


While the league office often dictates policy for the communications

people, the New York-based office operates very much like an


Joe Browne, SVP communications and government affairs for the NFL,

joined in 1965 as a college intern. He calls the NFL a 'service

organization for the individual teams' that supplies information for the

clubs and sets standards and policies, such as how long the locker room

is accessible to the media (10-12 minutes after the final whistle), to

guidance on the annual media guide which contains statistics, personal

bios and team records.

Brian Billick, coach of Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens and one of

the speakers at the Tennessee meeting, explains that PR sits at the

heart of the league, with everything moving through the PR division at

some point. 'The NFL is the best sports entity; it has the best

marketing and promotions. The heart of the league is in PR.' Billick

should know, he's the only coach with a communications degree (from

Brigham Young University) and he worked as a PR assistant for the San

Francisco 49ers 20 years ago.

Browne credits late commissioner Pete Rozelle for establishing good

marketing practices at the NFL. When Rozelle took the top spot in 1960,

pro football was third in popularity among fans. Baseball and college

football ranked first and second, respectively. Five years later, pro

football regained the top spot and has held that position ever since.

Browne says that Rozelle and the owners marketed the NFL well, getting

the best publicity and media attention.

Even though TV viewership for Monday Night Football is dropping, it is

still seventh among network shows and first in African-American


Greg Aiello, VP of public relations, says the NFL is heavily courting

the Hispanic audience too.

Keeping the NFL the top fan sport in the country is Joe Browne's


'We're number one and that status isn't going to change on my


Browne says the communications staff takes real pride in being

associated with the NFL and points to the cooperation that exists

between clubs when it comes to exchanging ideas. 'The grudges and feuds

among coaches go on, but the PR people have to work together. Wins and

losses shouldn't affect relationships between clubs,' he said.

That cooperative effort is best illustrated during the Super Bowl, when

15 of the PR directors come in to help organize the 2000 members of the

media from around the world. The number of media requesting access is

getting so large the NFL has set up auxiliary seats in the stands. Lee

Remmell, executive director of PR for the Green Bay Packers, says he

remembers when the media guide was about 60 to 70 pages. It is now more

than 400.

As a senior PR person, Browne's 20-person staff handles all public,

media, and community relations and government affairs. NFL Europe's PR

people report to him as well. There are NFL-financed teams in Berlin,

Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Scotland.

The role of the NFL's PR department has changed over the past two

decades according to Brown. 'The (PR department) was primarily a

publicity machine until 1980.' But then, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis

sued the league to allow him to move the franchise to Los Angeles.

The Raiders location change altered Browne's department away from

grinding out statistics and player and coach interviews into new and

uncharted waters. 'We became an issues department with a legislative

branch in DC, because Northern California congressmen wanted to stop the

move to LA,' Browne says.

Two other incidents forced the department to become more savvy about

politics: the Colts move from Baltimore to Indianapolis, and Donald

Trump's monopoly suit against the NFL when he was starting the United

States Football League (USFL). The USFL no longer exists.

The NFL also faces frequent opposition from other sources. Some disagree

with tax-payer money being used to fund stadium construction while

environmentalists have protested projects in cities such as Chicago.

Off-field problems

Perhaps the biggest problem PR teams have faced in recent years has been

off-field behavior issues, some of an extremely serious nature. For

example, Rae Carruth and Ray Lewis were both involved in murder trials

within the past year, while Fred Lane was murdered by his wife. Kenneth

Trantowski, Edelman PR Worldwide's EVP and GM, recently conducted an

image survey about various sports, however, and found that respondents

gave the NFL the least negative rating, despite the aforementioned


As Billy Thompson, a former defensive back for the Denver Broncos and

now director of player relations explains, young players are put through

a rookie symposium to tackle off-field challenges. The session advises

them on everything from media training to finance to information on how

to fend off prostitutes. Browne emphasizes that PR people had to

accentuate the positive aspects. 'Ninety-eight percent of the players do

good work,' he says.


SVP communications and govt. affairs: Joe Browne

VP public relations: Greg Aiello

Director of international public affairs: Pete Abitante

Director of community affairs: Beth Colleton

Director of media services: Leslie Hammond

Director corporate communications: Brian McCarthy

Budget: Not given

Agencies: None.

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