When your regular season ends in the United States and for the first time in your history all five of the top television markets in the country are not involved in the post-season, there may be cause for concern. Not if you are the National Football League. While other team-based properties will never say publicly but need to have the major markets involved in the postseason, the NFL continues to enjoy a ratings bonanza which will build toward another landmark global audience for The Super Bowl, probably regardless of which teams make it through the playoffs.
How it an era of numbers and analytics can a property continue to grow without the hometown eyeballs assured by a local team? In fairness, while the top five markets are not playing, those right behind the five…Washington, San Francisco, Boston…are in the mix, and the smallest market (Green Bay) is perhaps the league’s most legendary, so its not like the playoffs are full of the Oklahoma City’s and the Omaha’s.
Partly by design, partly by luck, the NFL has become destination viewing for most of America, especially during the playoffs. The design is parity, a combination of salary cup and competition and scheduling which gives most franchises a chance to be successful over the haul of the season. Throw in the fact that the NFL. drawn out over 18 weeks with one game per team a week becomes appointment TV for fans and a building of storylines throughout the regular season, and success is never tied to having one team go through the playoffs to have casual fans engaged. The flow of the regular season week by week gives media and fans the time to follow stars and build stories, whether it is a veteran like Peyton Manning ending up in Denver or the emergence of a series of young new quarterback faces. The broadcasts are national with lots of shoulder programming each week in each market to reinforce the action on a weekend, and brands who partner with the NFL not only activate in the market of their stars, they bring them into the national light (Greg Jennings of the Packers has THREE national sponsors...that would be tough to find for a small market athlete in baseball or even the NBA). Because of the time between games the access to telling the stories of the games and the athletes is plotted out day by day, and it all builds towards the postseason.
Another reason markets are not as vital to NFL success…one and done. The NFL, other than the MLS Cup which is winner take all at the end…is the only North American sports platform that is not ties to a best of series. Win or go home. Pretty clear. There is no deflating series sweep that can throw off the momentum and equity built towards a final, as we have seen with both MLB and the NHL in recent years. The matchup is decided on one day, with the only parallel being the NCAA basketball tournament. The week builds to the game, the winner moves on, the loser goes home. The games are events and spectacles, not just a game you may or may not watch…and of course they are on the weekends, not late into a school or work night.
Now has the NFL had some issues this year? Of course. It is a violent and complex mature business that has all of its dirty laundry covered by legions of media 24/7. However it is a rare business that can play in the smallest market in professional sports and still be successful on Madison Avenue. Yes MLB and the NBA and MLS (maybe the NHL if it comes back too) have their own success and growth stories, and all are wonderful and vibrant businesses.It is also true that success for a brand ties to a sports property today is not just tied to a TV rating. There is in-market activation, multicultural marketing, a mobile story, social media and direct sales which also play a very larger role. But TV eyeballs are still a very big barometer of success.
However the one sport that seems to continually find success regardless of those on the field is the NFL. Luck is the residue of design, and no property is probably better designed to be success for the crowded marketplace of the US today than the NFL.
Yes, everyone is ready for some football, regardless of the home city.