The NFL entered uncharted territory this season.
Fans had to choose between watching the action on the field of the high drama of a presidential debate. Twice.
Early in the season, broadcasters saw a double-digit plunge in TV ratings across the board, and while there was a post-election rally, numbers were down for eight of the 10 playoff games compared with last year.
Shawn McBride, EVP of sports for Ketchum Sports and Entertainment, shrugs off the ratings drop, saying other metrics are more promising. He notes turnstiles are still spinning, and social media lights up every Monday, Thursday night, and Sunday.
McBride calls the election’s outsized media presence, "which went into overdrive from September through November," a possible outlier, noting that the volatility of the race may have outmatched the excitement of NFL games.
"Leading up to the presidential election, ratings were down by an average of 14%. In the weeks post-election, they were only down 1%," McBride says. "I’m more curious to see how 2015 stacks up against next year."
PR pros said at the start of the season that the NFL is bulletproof, despite controversies including DeflateGate, franchise relocation, off-the-field player misconduct, domestic violence, and the effects of concussions. Yet the Super Bowl is a marquee event and a virtual national holiday, and it offers the NFL a unique chance to launch the league into its next chapter, say experts.
"You’re seeing strong advertising sales and a match-up [with] drama even without having two top-tier markets. We could be having a very different conversation Monday if it’s a dramatic game that holders viewers’ attention and pulls great ratings," says McBride. "That could be a launching point for the NFL to move on from the damages of this past season."
Two years ago, Super Bowl XLIX gave the NFL its biggest audience ever, and allowed it to address domestic violence with a powerful public service announcement. Similarly, Sunday’s game offers the league the chance to put TV ratings and other concerns behind it and reach new fans.
The NFL didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.
The next drive
Besides filling the pipeline with fresh talent, the NFL has to start seeding the next generation of football fans, experts note.
"People hone in on one thing [TV ratings] rather than the whole portfolio," explains Jason Teitler, chair of Burson-Marsteller’s sports and entertainment marketing specialty. "The NFL may be leading the pack in options for content, engagement, and experiences."
Teitler’s research shows younger audiences look for different things in sports than older generations. Younger viewers are more cognizant of the social relevance of brands, the league, and the teams. He notes "community" may be the NFL’s most compelling story angle.
"There is a space for that in the Super Bowl with brands," Teitler says. "And that may be the next avenue of content the NFL can explore with its partners."
Technology is not only making professional football safer, it’s also creating a more interactive sports experience. New technologies, such as streaming, social media, and VR not only allow fans to get closer to the game, it also lets them engage the league, teams, and players. Digital technology facilitates media outlets such as The Players’ Tribune, where fans can read personal stories penned by their favorite players, and it drives friendly (or not so friendly) competition in fantasy football.
"The biggest challenge the NFL faces is continuing its standard of excellence," says MWWPR President Bret Werner. "They’re doing some interesting things while still maintaining the tremendous marriage between TV and live events."
Werner notes that the NFL’s young crop of athletes, such as Odell Beckham Jr., understand social media and know what content to deliver at a given moment.
Twitter head of brand strategy Alex Josephson told PRWeek’s sister publication, Campaign, about how the social platform enhances the Super Bowl experience. He notes it recently launched a livestream tool that can meet consumer demand for "exclusive access, behind-the-scenes content, or even real-time highlights" during live events.
In other sports, Microsoft partnered with Spanish soccer giant Real Madrid to combine its technological bandwidth and social goodwill to deliver a unique experience for fans of the club.
"There’s only so much a regular TV can do," Teitler says, adding the NFL should push harder in earned media.
"It has an opportunity to tell its story to a whole new landscape of media. It does a fantastic job on what it’s doing with properties, and each team has an individual PR team, but they tell their story to media they’re comfortable with," he explains. "There’s a whole lifestyle, business, marketing, and tech side of the story. The league can do a great job to convey all the personalities of the NFL."
The storylines to watch on the field and at halftime
A major question about this year’s Super Bowl is whether it can top last year’s 50th anniversary showdown between the animated Cam Newton and his Carolina Panthers and old guard Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos playing in his last game.
Werner says Super Bowl LI has a new vs. old storyline of its own between the Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
And many fans will be glued to their TV sets at intermission, as well. Beyoncé’s halftime performance last year electrified fans and stirred debate among detractors who felt it was disrespectful to police. This year’s halftime performer, Lady Gaga, is known for her outrageousness, and her performance could drive water-cooler buzz for days, adds McBride.
Werner adds that the league’s evolution has to go beyond technological or programming changes to become cultural. That includes the spectacle of its halftime show.
"[The NFL] have to continue to evolve [the Super Bowl]," Werner says. "They’ve added elements like the NFL honors. They’ve done a good job to make the Super Bowl a weeklong endeavor and not just a couple hours on a Sunday evening."