The NFL is far and away the most popular professional sports league in the country. Its $20.4B TV package (NBC, Fox, CBS, ESPN, DirecTV) is worth more than that of the MLB, NBA and NHL deals combined. Its popularity seems endless as the game is now expanding its reach into foreign markets.
But why? About a third of the league sucks. Horrible. Almost unwatchable. The Bills, Browns, Titans, Raiders, Chiefs, Redskins, Lions, Bucs, Panthers, Seahawks and Rams stink. That’s 10/32 teams that are crappy, right around 33%. The sheer number of bad teams isn’t rare; sometimes teams have a down year because of injuries, which is understandable, what’s different about this year is the fact that these teams just flat out suck.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to think that if the product is bad, the popularity would start to wane. And while many of the aforementioned teams might have issues filling the stadium, I’d actually argue that interest in the league as a whole is greater than ever. Thanks to fantasy football, the league has inadvertently gained a safety net against mediocrity.
On any given Monday in the fall, walk in any office in America and the chatter will probably be about fantasy football. Who’s down by ten with 2 players left during the Monday night game? Who lost by 6 with a 35 point player on their bench? Even the guy who didn’t bother to put in a bye week defense might join in the discussion.
On a recent Sunday, I headed over to my buddies place for what is becoming a Sunday tradition. A resident of the DC area, I’m usually forced to watch ( and try to avoid) a Skins game every week. On this particular Sunday, the Skins played the winless Kansas City Chiefs, and we had a genuine interest in the outcome of the game. Why would we be interested in such awful football teams? Yup, fantasy football.
One of us (I assure you it wasn’t me) picked up Jason Campbell as their bye week quarterback (Campbell was benched after one half). Someone else had Chris Cooley. Another player had Santana Moss. Dwayne Bowe was also on someone’s team, and another player in the league picked up the Redskins defense, figuring they’d be able to shut down the lowly Chiefs (they didn’t). In all, there were at least a half dozen players of interest in a game featuring teams with a combined 2-8 record.
Another interesting stat: the Monday Night Football contest between the Bears and the Falcons had better ratings than Game 3 of the NLCS between the Philadelphia Phillies and the LA Dodgers … in L.A. “I’m a big time Dodgers fan, but I’m down by 20 with Jay Cutler and Michael Turner playing tonight.” I’m sure something like that went through the minds of the Dodgers fans that tuned into ESPN instead of TBS that night.
One of the beauties about fantasy football is the fact that it will have you rooting for the weirdest things. “I need Tom Brady to throw 5 touchdowns, but also turn the ball over since I have the Jets D,” or “I hope that Drew Brees catches swine flu because there’s no way I’m going to maintain this 4 point lead otherwise.”
Perhaps the best thing about this phenomenon is the fact hat it makes every team your team and consequently every team your opponent. You root for Ronnie Brown and against Ricky Williams. You cheer for Eli Manning and Ahmad Bradshaw, but not Brandon Jacobs or the Giants defense. You might watch a heated Redskins/Cowboys game and find yourself cheering for Chris Cooley and the Cowboys defense.
This couldn’t have come at a better time for the NFL. Yes, there’s some parity in the league, but there are also just a lot of poorly run teams with awful players. This is heightened by the fact that they only play 16 games. In baseball or basketball, you could start 4-12, and still turn your season around; in the NFL, you go 4-12 and you’re picking in the top 5 of the draft.
Fortunately for the NFL, fantasy football is exploding. Every major website employs dozens of fantasy football experts that dole out bad advice. The NFL network even came out with a RedZone channel that shows “every touchdown from every game” and is basically crack cocaine for fantasy football junkies.
What’s the point of all of this? Well a lot of people act as if there is some immutable law that states that the NFL must always remain immensely popular. That’s not really the case. At one point, Major League Baseball was without a doubt the nation’s pastime. Now, the NFL outdraws baseball playoff games. The NBA and Jordan’s Bulls were so popular at a time that WGN – the Chicago station that carried the majority of the Bulls games – was carried nationwide. Now, a perennial playoff team in one of the largest cities in the country – the Philadelphia 76ers – will likely lose millions of dollars this season.
Sports, like anything else, is fairly cyclical. This would seem like the time where the NFL would start to fade. With 30% of the league bogged down with awful teams, high prices, and somewhat fan unfriendly strategies (PSLs, blackout policy) it would seem like the time for the NFL to suffer. Yet, while some teams will probably see a lot of empty stadiums towards the end of the year, the NFL remains immensely popular.
A lot of the NFL’s popularity comes down to brand management. #1. They have a pretty dope product (when its good), #2. They were able to recognize a key trend and take advantage of it. The NFL is riding fantasy football through the storm of rampant mediocrity. Instead of mocking fantasy football or downplaying it, the NFL has made an effort to cater to fantasy football players with better and more frequent stat updates and the aforementioned NFL RedZone channel.
These are things that the MLB and NBA hasn’t done well. MLB hasn’t done anything to make its game more exciting and the NBA has struggled mightily with its image post-Jordan and only recently has made strides towards improving its brand. You can even look at pro soccer. The MLS has an inferior product, which is why it’s a niche sport even though a large number of kids in this country grow up playing the sport. However, with superior European soccer becoming more accessible to us here in the states, don’t be surprised if you hear about how the popularity of pro soccer is growing stateside.
The NFL’s strategy can definitely translate over to fashion world. Polo has stayed successful over the years for the same two reasons the NFL has. Of course, the product is king, but you have to be cognizant of trends to avoid becoming a niche brand. Meanwhile, focusing on trends first will cause your brand to fade into irrelevancy once the trend dies down (see Akademics).
Fashion came to mind not only because it’s what we talk about a lot at Uristocrat but also because it’s an industry that people are always trying to break into and are always searching for an edge. Two of the biggest differences between upstart fashion companies and major sports leagues are the sports leagues have the capital and long-term fan bases to bounce back from their mistakes. Fashion companies don’t.
So a company like The Hundreds is growing and gaining market share and relevancy by smart brand management, while Blac Label is looking like they won’t be around next year because they rode the graphic/gothic trend into the ground. Once that officially becomes dead, they’re finished.
Meanwhile, the NFL will continue to ride this fantasy football wave while most of the league is mired in mediocrity. Fortunately for the league, most of us don’t root for the Detroit Lions or the St. Louis Rams: we root for the Seoul Dutchmen, Barry’s Bears and Vick’s Doggy Dogs.
Unfortunately for aspiring fashion designers, I don’t foresee a fantasy fashion league cropping up anytime soon. Therefore be smart about brand management. Be patient with your brand, let it grow organically. Learn to take advantage of trends without falling victim to their eventual demise. And above all else, do what the guys who created FUBU didn’t do; make hot shit.