By Barry Janoff
September 13, 2016: For most of its history, NFL games were aired on broadcast and then cable networks. Last year, the league live-streamed its first game via Yahoo when the Buffalo Bills played the Jacksonville Jaguars in London. This year, Twitter will stream all ten Thursday Night Football games broadcast by CBS and NBC (five each, with all ten also simulcast on NFL Network, which gets another four Thursday games on an exclusive basis).
As part of this progression, NFL Media has become an increasingly powerful player in the league's growth. Among the components under the NFL Media umbrella are NFL Network, NFL Mobile from Verizon, NFL.com, NFL Now, NFL Films and NFL RedZone.
Brian Rolapp was named by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as Executive Vice President of NFL Media and President and CEO of NFL Network in 2014.
Rolapp, who had previously served as COO for NFL Media since January 2011, manages all NFL Media businesses, including broadcasting, licensing, NFL Network, NFL Films, NFL Mobile and NFL Digital Media. He also oversees the NFL’s sponsorship, sales and consumer products businesses.
In addition, Rolapp, who joined the NFL in 2003 from NBC Universal as Director of Finance and Strategy for NFL Network, heads the development and implementation of strategy for the NFL’s media rights, including the licensing of NFL games and other content to NFL television and digital partners.
This week, Twitter unveiled free apps for Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Microsoft's Xbox One, which will feature all live streaming video available on the platform, including this season's ten NFL Thursday Night Football games, content from MLB Advanced Media, NBA, Pac 12 Networks and Campus Insiders.
“There is a massive amount of NFL-related conversation happening on Twitter during our games," Goodell said earlier this year when the league's deal with Twitter was unveiled, "and tapping into that audience, in addition to our viewers on broadcast and cable, will ensure Thursday Night Football is seen on an unprecedented number of platforms this season. This agreement also provides additional reach for those brands advertising with our broadcast partners.”
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Rolapp (pictured right with Sean McManus, chairman for CBS Sports) about the growing influence of digital platforms and social media in the league, the pros and cons of players on Twitter, the expansion of Thursday Night Football to NBC and Twitter and early media strategies behind the marketing of Super Bowl LI.
NYSportsJournalism.com: The NFL has a massive following, but what are the challenges of using traditional and social media to get core, casual and even non-NFL more involved with the games?
Brian Rolapp: It starts with the competition on the field. One great thing about the NFL, the way our system is set up, is that every team is competitive. That starts with how we allocate salary cap money. We have parity. Which means that every team can be competitive. When that happens, it means the games are relatively close. And that means they are exciting. So when the product is exciting, people will be into the games. But people are also attracted to the players in the game and their stories. They want to know more about them, and that has captured their attention.
NYSJ: What do you see separating the NFL from other sports?
BR: When you look at the NFL's immense popularity, there are very few things in this country that still unify people. It's a very fractured society in terms of what interests people. Football brings them together. The NFL brings them together. There is real power in that. When you combine that with our media strategy, where all of our games are on television, having a wide reach of our games without having to pay for the games has certainly helped. Accessibility to the games has helped drive popularity.
NYSJ: Pepsi opened the season with a digital-based campaign, "Zone Reads," in which players read comments that have been 'inspired' by posts from people on social media. Are you seeing more strategies where companies will think social media first or at least have it at the heart of a campaign?
BR: People spend a lot on social and digital. And not just around the NFL. It's effective. It's an effective way to target people, and also effective to get people talking about your campaign. But what NFL games still do better than any medium is aggregate audiences. If you look around, there is very little left that can aggregate a large audience at the same time. There is value in that. With that, television is still a main driver of audiences, but putting all your money just into television doesn't work any more. You have to put it into other places. We see NFL sponsors and advertisers supporting NFL football in a lot of different places, more and more via social and digital.
NYSJ: A lot of the younger players in the league have spent their entire lives using or involved with social media, and even the veteran players are more tech-savvy than ever. The league has a social media policy, and players are informed about the pros and cons of using social media during the season. What is your feeling on how the general population of the NFL handles their social media responsibilities?
BR: When these guys come into the NFL, they know the spotlight is going to be bright, but sometimes they aren't sure how bright it's going to be. We are making sure they understand that there is no difference between what they say on Twitter or if the TV camera is in your face. It has the same impact. And you have to think about it that way. Once they realize that, they handle it pretty well. We like the fact that fans, players and others can interact via social media. It is a touchpoint to integrate and interact with the game they love.
NYSJ: How does the fact that there are players who have millions of followers on social media fit into the NFL's media strategy?
BR: It is a great opportunity for these players to actually build their own brand and their own relationships with fans. But with that comes responsibility. How do you use it? If you have five million followers on Twitter, you need to use it responsibly. You can say something that can hurt you. But, for the most part, as a general statement, players handle it pretty well.
"We are making sure they understand that there is no difference between what they say on Twitter or if the TV camera is in your face. It has the same impact."
NYSJ: Thursday Night Football games during this season will now be on CBS, NBC and NFL Network at various times, as well as Twitter. How do you plan to tell people where the games will be shown as you switch networks?
BR: We felt if done right, Thursday Night Football would be successful. There was a lot of concern when we initially moved half the games from NFL Network to CBS about whether people would know where the games were, and when we played on Saturday late in the year whether or not people would know what network they were on. What we found was that people find the games. The best example is during the 2015 playoffs. We had the first wild card game ever on ESPN and also simulcast it on ABC. (The NFL aired its first cable playoff game on ESPN during the 2014 post-season.) About 80% of the viewership was on ABC. We hadn't had a game on ABC for ten years (since Monday Night Football moved to ESPN in 2006). We plan to simulcast a wild card game on ESPN and ABC again this season. So people will find the games. That said, we still plan to do a lot of promotion for the Thursday Night Football package.
NYSJ: The NFL live-streamed the Buffalo Bills-Jacksonville Jaguars game from London last year on Yahoo (which had more than 15 million unique viewers) and this year Twitter will stream the ten Thursday Night Football games. Do you see that strategy growing?
BR: TV is still our core, still the way we reach a majority of our fans. But you will see more of these deals and more games shown that way moving forward. It is a good way to build our fan base. Digital is growing; there is a fair segment of the population who prefer the digital experience. And we want to find ways to reach them. It will be incremental, not cannibalistic. So you will see the NFL continue to pursue that strategy.
NYSJ: The NFL is coming off a season that culminated with Super Bowl 50, certainly an historic moment in league and Super Bowl history. What is the strategy behind building momentum toward Super Bowl LI in Houston?
BR: The main strategy is to keep moving forward. Every year, we give ourselves a couple of days after the Super Bowl, and then we start to think about the next one. How we can innovate. Where can we do something better. Looking for unique and different things. No one was surprised at the recognition CBS has received for its coverage of Super Bowl 50. But you don't replicate a Super Bowl 50 again.
NYSJ: Is there any factor that has remained consistently strong in marketing and media planning for the Super Bowl?
BR: Perhaps the biggest factor is that, at the end of the day, the Super Bowl games have been competitive. People, however they are watching and following it, stay until the end. But if you look at the history of the Super Bowl, the event has gotten bigger and bigger. Not just the game itself, but the events leading up to it, the weeks leading up to it. We want to feed that appetite. We are always challenging ourselves to make it better, from the game experience to the pre-game events to how we present it on media. You keep moving and you keep challenging yourself.
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