This is a small sample size, but let’s take a look at some recent winners in sports. Back in February, the Green Bay Packers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl. Arguably the two most storied franchises in the NFL (and save the Yankees, possibly American sports.)
Later in the Spring, the Cricket World Cup was won by India, the country most associated with the sport, after a nearly 30 year run without lifting the trophy. Last month, the Rugby World Cup was claimed by New Zealand, once again the country now most associated with the sport, and once again after a lengthy drought (last title, 1987). Less than a week later, the St. Louis Cardinals clinched their 11th World Series title (2nd most in history).
What does this all mean? Again, with a sample size this small, probably nothing. But when times are tough (economically in the U.S., politically in India, environmentally in New Zealand) people look for something to rally around. Something safe and reassuring that they know they can count. Something that reminds them of their strengths and past successes. Sport can answer that call and in a lovely symbiotic relationship, the teams feed off the fans who are desperate for the win, driving them on to play inspired. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that the Cricket World Cup was played partially in India and the Rugby World Cup took place in New Zealand.
As all eyes turn to the Super Bowl tomorrow it’s clear that the event is much more than just the game. It’s equally clear that the NFL has lapped the field when it comes to sports league popularity in this country. For those who haven’t grown up with the game or just aren’t close observers of the sports marketing industry, this leadership position may be a bit of a puzzle. After all, wasn’t baseball America’s Pastime? Wasn’t NBA superstar Michael Jordan arguably the most popular American athlete of the last 25 years? How did the NFL push these sports to the side to take center stage?
Is the sport itself inherently more appealing? That’s a tough argument to make in my opinion. All sports are different and the speed and grace of sports like basketball and hockey are certainly very entertaining. Does the slower pace of baseball make it boring? I hear that argument, but millions of people go to baseball games every year and the game really hasn’t changed much in 100 years. Football certainly has several inherent detriments that would seemingly work against it. With all the padding and helmets, it’s actually hard to see the players, you’d think that would make marketing the game difficult. Or how about the fact that the average game plays out over around three hours, yet only has 11 minutes of actual action! That’s right, watch the game tomorrow with a stop watch and you’ll see that the combined time of all plays is a little less than one quarter.
So with on-field play a factor that doesn’t necessarily overwhelmingly favor the NFL, we have to look at off-field factors. Here’s where the NFL becomes the NFL. Here are the eight factors that made the NFL what it is today:
Interestingly, Super Bowl III was actually the first AFL-NFL game to be called “The Super Bowl” (Super Bowls I and II were so named retroactively). This game made football fans stand up and take notice of the AFL clubs who were beaten by the Packers in the first two championship games. But it wasn’t the Jets performance in the game that was memorable, but rather a pre-game prediction by Joe Namath, the Jets quarterback, that is memorable and noteworthy. Just days before the game Namath told reporters, “We’re gonna win the game. I guarantee it.” And then the underdog Jets went out and won. Today, athletes predicting victories is commonplace, but when Namath did it, it launched him to national super stardom, embarking on a movie and television career and icon status that continues to this day.
With just 65 seconds left in a fantastic game between the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets, NBC had a decision to make. Stay with the game, which the Jets were leading 32-39, or switch to the scheduled programming – a made for TV version of the children’s classic, Heidi. They went with Heidi. The Raiders proceeded to score two touchdowns in those final 65 seconds, triggering die-hard football fans to absolutely lose their mind. For the next 30 years “The Heidi Game” becomes a part of NFL lore, and showed the growing interest in the sport. The incident forced the NFL to change their policies and became a part of American pop culture. Here’s legendary newsman David Brinkley explaining what happened the next day:
In today’s era of cable television and niche networks it’s hard to understand the impact of Monday Night Football when it first aired in 1970. Prior to Monday Night Football, most fans saw their team’s local broadcast. Now, there was a premier game, every week, with all football fans tuned in. The broadcast was also innovative in the way it introduced graphics, music and “event television” to sports broadcasts. The highest rated MNF broadcast drew a 46 share (1985, Bears v. Dolphins). By comparison, the current season of American Idol is scoring an 18 share. But perhaps more than anything else, the announcers of Monday Night Football took the sport to another level. At games you would often see as many home-made banners referring to Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and other denizens of the booth as you did for the teams competing. The show spawned a book, Monday Night Mayhem, that was even turned into a TV movie. A TV movie about a broadcast of football games. Think about that for a moment.
Without Monday Night Football, Howard Cosell would have been a legendary figure in American broadcasting. With it, he enters the pantheon of pop culture icons. Cosell, a New York lawyer turned sports journalist was unlike any other sportscaster before or quite frankly, since. Erudite, arrogant and aloof, he generated a visceral response from fans who loved or hated him in equal numbers. But regardless of where you stood, you were compelled to watch him. In the era before ESPN few fans saw highlights from games outside their market until Monday Night Football began their “Halftime Highlights” segment, which featured highlights from most of the other games. This literally became as important a part of the broadcast as the game itself. It was simply mesmerizing to hear Cosell narrate the highlights. Fans of teams who weren’t featured during the segment would write in to complain. For many American’s, it was Cosell on Monday Night Football who told them of the death of John Lennon.
Perhaps more than any other factor, the NFL that fans know is shaped by the myth-building of NFL Films. It was a combination of production elements never seen before by sports fans. The music, the editing, and the voice of God – John Facenda – all combined to create an experience that… here, let me just show you. Watch at least the first 40 seconds:
If you don’t get goosebumbs when the music kicks in you may need to check yourself for a pulse. The second most famous piece – The Autumn Wind is a Raider – is known by any football fan over the age of 40.
This is the one that started it all. Now, Super Bowl ads has become an integral part of the game experience. Brands spend millions of dollars to produce and air spots, and yet 25+ years later, this effort by Chiat/Day is still the most memorable, and influential, spot. The USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter provides information as eagerly awaited as Nielsen ratings or even the game’s final score. Now, with the emergence of social media, we have the Brand Bowl. Over the years, brands like Coca-Cola, Budweiser and Go Daddy have spent millions upon millions to reach people during the last true shared community experience in the our lives.
Every week teams are required to file injury reports. The reports list players as out, doubtful, questionable or probable. Why the distinctions? So Las Vegas can more accurately set the betting lines. Watch how much attention is paid to the weather conditions at the different venues. This isn’t baseball, they play NFL games in blazing heat, downpours and on snow-covered fields. So why the weather reports? So Las Vegas knows where to set the over-under lines for points scored in the game. For the casual sports fan, or even the non-sports fan, participating in an office pool or Super Bowl Boxes game. But just looking at legal betting, and just focusing on the Super Bowl, and we’re still talking about nearly $100 million wagered.
The NFL regular season lasts a mere 16 games. By comparison the NBA and NHL both play 80+ games and Major League Baseball features a stamina-testing 162 regular season games. The result? Every single regular season NFL game matters. Every game is precious and the difference between making the playoffs and not is the difference between going 10-6 or 9-7. For fans, you can’t take a game off, you are committed to the weekly ritual of watching your team on Sunday. The league structure also promotes parity. By instituting a salary cap and revenue sharing, along with a draft that aids the worst teams, the league is incredibly competitive. In the last 10 years, 10 different teams have represented the NFL in the Super Bowl. Every NFL team is potentially no more than two years away from being a playoff team (horrible management not withstanding). All this keeps fans of all teams engaged year after year.
The NFL is a machine. A machine that was created not by the play on the field, as good as it is, but rather by myth-makers behind the scenes and in front of the camera. Enjoy the game on Sunday, and Go Steelers!
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin photo by Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Full disclosure: I’m a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. Have been since the late-70s. The NFL and several its teams have done a great job of distinguishing themselves and creating strong brands. The Raiders, Cowboys and Packers are all great examples of teams with unique personalities, or really, brands. But I think the Steelers may be the best example for brand marketers. You can make an argument they are the most successful franchise in the NFL (if they win the Super Bowl in two weeks, they will have won more than any other team). Let’s take a look at several of the lessons the Steelers can teach us:
1. Stable ownership
While many pro sports teams have been bought and sold several times over in recent decades, the Steelers have been owned by the Rooney family since the teams founding in 1933. But it is more than just that, the Rooney’s have been smart enough to not only hire the right people, but to then get out of their way. In an era when so many owners think they are the most important part of the team, the Rooneys have quietly watched from the sidelines as their teams keep winning and winning.
The Lesson: Stick to what you know best, hire the best people and let them do their jobs.
2. Continuity matters
Since 1969 the Pittsburgh Steelers have had three head coaches: Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and now Mike Tomlin. All three coaches have taken the team to the Super Bowl. There were times when it would have been easy to fire Noll or Cowher, but management stuck with them and it paid dividends. We live in a “what have you done for me lately” world, especially in sports. But developing a winning team, in sports or business, takes a little time.
The Lesson: Sometimes success takes a little time, but altering course three years into a five year plan only puts you back at square one.
3. Know your market, know yourself
It’s interesting to watch teams from New York or L.A. get caught up making player moves just to get media attention. Or to see a team from try to one up its rival. The people in Pittsburgh aren’t flashy, don’t want to be flashy and don’t particularly like players who are flashy. As a result, you rarely hear about Steelers players writing books, starring in movies or dating supermodels. And when too much celebrity came to QB Ben Roethlisberger, the football Gods punished him with a motorcycle accident and an apendectomy. Big Ben learned his lesson the hard way. But the Steelers are a reflection of their city, and as such, have been, are and will always been synonymous with the city.
The Lesson: Understand your consumer and make your brand a reflection of what they respect and admire.
4. Don’t rely on the cult of personality, build on the strength of component parts
It’s funny how Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t get credit, because the defense is so good. And head coach Mike Tomlin doesn’t get credit because he stepped in to a winning situation. And the defense is so good because of the coordinator, Dick LeBeau. Or is LeBeau so good because of the players on the field? I’ve been following the Steelers for 30 years, and they’ve had plenty of great players, but never one that has stood head and shoulders above the rest of the team, like say Peyton Manning in Indianapolis or John Elway in Denver (both great players and very good franchises). The Steelers have always been team first and that’s why they have 17 players/coaches in the Hall of Fame, because they all made themselves and each other better.
The Lesson: Having a strong team beats having one superstar. Football, like business, is too complicated, with too many specialized skills, for one person to do it all. As great as Steve Jobs is, what’s going to happen when he steps away from Apple? (Best wishes to him during this current health scare.)
5. Understand the fundamentals of your business
Since 1972 the Steelers have had seven losing seasons. During that same time period the legendary Green Bay Packers have had 14 losing seasons. The Steelers success is based on their understanding of how football has worked since its inception: stop the other team and successfully run the ball. You can add other elements, like win the turnover battle, but really it’s run the ball, and have a great defense. That was the formula for their Super Bowl victories in the 1970s and it’s what they rely on today.
The Lesson: Focus on the two most important elements for achieving success, and don’t worry about everything else.
Stability, Continuity, Understand, Teamwork & Fundamentals. The foundation of a great team, the foundation of a great brand