I’m not sure if you are familiar with Chuck Klosterman, but he’s probably one of the better irreverent sports commentators out there. He has a new book that came out this week, and one of his essays on the NFL hits on a point you’ve been making for years. Here is an excerpt:
“What the NFL has realized is that they have no better marketing tool than the game itself. Every other sport tries to fool us. Baseball sells itself as some kind of timeless, historical pastime that acts as the bridge to a better era of American life, an argument that now seems beyond preposterous. The NBA tries to create synergy with anything that might engage youth culture (hip-hop, abstract primordial competition, nostalgia for the 1980s, the word “amazing,” Hurricane Katrina, etc.). NASCAR connects itself to red state contrarianism. Soccer aligns itself with forward-thinking globalists who enjoy fandom more than sports. But football only uses football. They are the product they sell. Unlike David Stern’s failed vision for the NBA, the NFL Network does not try to expand its empire by pushing the sport toward nonchalant audiences with transitory interest; it never tries to trick anybody into watching something they don’t already like. Instead, the NFL Network’s goal is to enliven its base. It solely tries to (a) make football essential to people, and (b) make football more essential to those who are already invested. The casual fan does not matter. In essence, the NFL Network works exactly like FOX News: It stays on message and invents talking points for its core constituency to absorb… By inventing and galvanizing the message, the NFL Network (and by extension the NFL) can always deliver the precise product people want. They construct how I think about pro football.”
Granted, the NFL has some indisputable advantages over other professional sports that allows it to this, namely it is intrinsically the most entertaining sport to watch. However, it is still interesting to compare how the NFL sells itself relative to other leagues. The NFL essentially takes the audience it already has, and focuses on improving the experience for them, whereas a league like hockey looks at the fans they don’t have and focuses on how to get them to into the games. The NFL panders to the interested, whereas the NHL panders to the uninterested. The NHL spends all its energy trying to be like everybody else, whereas the NFL embraces its uniqueness.
Thanks, Cam. I don’t agree that football is intrinsically the most entertaining sport to watch, but I do agree that league has advantages and I can’t disagree with anything Klosterman writes. According to Luc Robitaille, the Board of Governors has made a decision to shift the marketing focus:
[I]n the past, the league would try to promote to 300 million Americans. Now they’re trying to promote to the 55 million hockey fans. Which is… 55 million is a lot of people. It’s the same thing for us in L.A. I think it’s 2.3 million hockey fans. Those are the people we should focus on. I guarantee, if we get them, everybody else will start paying attention. So I like where the league is going.
I hope the league does try to follow the NFL model and promote the game among the already converted, but I don’t see the evidence yet. And because we can’t undo history, hockey still must create more fans, lots of them, in places where hockey is neither played nor watched. Pitching the players might work once hockey becomes a national sport in the United States, but it can’t work when hockey is a regional sport, a local sport, a winter sport. It has proven to be very difficult to push hockey beyond its traditional boundaries.
To be successful, I think the game has to be sold. In my view, that’s how they succeeded in San Jose. They sold hockey as unique, fast, violent and explosive. They created hockey fans. The team sells hockey to one fan at a time until inch by inch hockey becomes a force in the local sports entertainment market. I don’t think the league can do anything to leap from a regional sport to a national one. It can only be done by winning one local market at a time.