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.
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
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.
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.
NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE
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