The NFL’s Marketing Machine

May 2, 2012

More than 40 million people watched the National Football League draft last weekend. There was no actual game being played.

Although the talking heads analyzing all 253 picks would have you believe differently, nobody actually won or lost anything. Yet every minute, more than 15 hours over the course of three days, was carried live by two different networks.

It’s not exactly breaking news that the NFL is popular, but it is the latest example of how the league is crushing all others in the world of American sports. The draft routinely draws more viewers than National Basketball Association and National Hockey League playoff games. In fact, round one of the NFL Draft topped ratings in the Washington, D.C., market for Game 7 of the Washington Capitals vs. Boston Bruins series. This, even though every football fan knew for weeks that the Washington Redskins would select quarterback Robert Griffin III with the draft’s second pick.

Here in the Twin Cities, I noticed at one point on Saturday that all eight of the “most read stories” on the Star Tribune’s website were related to the Minnesota Vikings. That’s a little scary.

Even more frightening for the NHL, NBA, Major League Baseball and all others vying for the attention of sports fans is the fact that the NFL is getting even better at marketing itself. The league has become a year-long newsmaker, creating offseason buzz around the Senior Bowl, owners meetings, rule changes, free agency and mini-camps. The release of the NFL schedule warrants its own ESPN special these days. The scouting combine has become a marquee event with hundreds of media outlets descending on Indianapolis and wall-to-wall TV coverage of prospects running 40-yard dashes and showcasing their vertical jumps. Even the draft had a few smart new marketing wrinkles this year, including the league incorporating legends from each team into the event and working with sponsors to offer fans a chance to announce their favorite team’s late-round picks.

Is there any stopping this juggernaut? In the U.S., I think the only thing that could derail the NFL is significant changes to the way the game is played. And I don’t see that happening — even in response to the increasing number of concussions that are plaguing the sport.

The NFL shouldn’t get too cocky, however. Its quest for world domination has a long ways to go thanks to another brand of football. We call it soccer here and it had stunning global ratings of 660 million viewers for a match on Monday night between Manchester City and Manchester United in the English Premier League. NFL football may have eclipsed baseball as our national pastime, but it’s still just a silly little game to most people on the planet.