NFL’s Renie Anderson, Brian Rolapp Ponder the League’s Business Future

Fan development, media strategy, consumer relationships will be major issues over next 10 years

Even after 100 years, the National Football League continues to grow exponentially. Despite the COVID-19–ravaged season in 2020, viewers are increasingly flocking to television sets to watch professional football on Thursday, Sunday, and Monday every week. At SportsBusiness Journal’s World Congress of Sports, NFL Chief Media and Business Officer Brian Rolapp and Chief Revenue Officer/EVP, NFL Partnerships Renie Anderson discuss the league’s recent success and how it can flourish in the future.

On increased viewership in 2021:
I think we’d be up in viewership this year for a lot of reasons since 2020 was a strange year with the pandemic and the competitive-sports calendar being all of a piece. We thought there would be more of a demand [for NFL games], and the numbers have been great. A lot of that has to do with the play on the field. No matter what your broadcast patterns are or what you do from a production standpoint, if the product on the field is that good, people are going to watch more and stay longer. Having full stadiums has also increased the quality of the product since people like to see the energy of the fans.

On the influence of sports betting on ratings:
Rolapp: I think it’s too early to tell because our view is that every sports bettor is an NFL fan but not every NFL fan is a sports bettor. I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon, but, over time, this will look more like how fantasy football increased engagement within our fanbase. It’ll eventually show up in viewership where fans are watching longer or watching other games that they’d normally not watch.

On expectations of Thursday Night Football on Amazon:
Amazon has been doing some of this with the tricast of Thursday Night Football, but they haven’t done a production and have been solely responsible for monetization. At the base level of being a [media-rights] partner, you need to be able to produce and distribute the game. With the quality that fans are used to seeing on an NFL game, there are a lot of expectations, but Amazon is focused on production. It’s refreshing to see how they’re looking to get the [production] basics right, and we made this deal to take advantage of a digital platform and everything that it can do from a fan-viewing standpoint. They’ve been working hard on building a production team and figuring out how they’re going to innovate, and we’re really excited about what we’re seeing.

On the new vision for out-of-town TV packages and NFL Sunday Ticket:
We’re excited about what we’re seeing in the marketplace about the future of Sunday Ticket. Sunday Ticket, for us, is a product that I think is ripe for innovation. I think we’re seeing a ton of interest in those rights from both traditional and new-age providers. While we want that product to be widely available, the only way to do that traditionally was satellite. Now with broadband and wireless networks, we can create the ubiquity in different ways. It has been the same product for the last two decades, but, when you get into digital, you can change a lot of that. So I think you’re going to see a ton of innovation and digital distribution. This [strategy] will be at the core and will be an important component as we move towards direct-to-consumer.

When we look at the totality of our rights and [our] businesses that aren’t locked up in long-term rights agreements, we look at them holistically. There’s a scenario where NFL Network, NFL RedZone, and NFL Sunday Ticket can be in one package but also a scenario where NFL Sunday Ticket can be separate from that. The objectives are to be in every household, innovation around the product, and make sure that NFL Sunday Ticket is still a premium viewing experience.

On developing a personalized DTC experience:
Anderson: The easy answer is that we’ll be able to customize and target our consumers. As we continue to work with our partners in legalized sports betting, we’re understanding how the sports bettor is actually engaging with our product. It’s early days, but, as we continue through the season and beyond, there’s a lot of learning on behaviors from different parts of the country.

Rolapp: In this new economy that’s shifting more and more to digital, data is the currency that matters the most. I think Disney’s [decision] to pivot their business and build scaled digital platforms where they’re talking to the consumer has been extraordinary. I think there are different ways to get [a strong digital strategy], but the core model is taking insights from your customers and developing a relationship with those customers.

We’re also looking at sports-betting data to talk to our television partners about how to better regionalize Sunday afternoon. For example, you can look at New Jersey, see where the betting is, and figure out where someone stops becoming an Eagles fan and where they start to become a Giants or Jets fan. That [data] has a lot of influence on broadcast patterns and how to market to them as well.

On the impact of ManningCast:
Rolapp: It has been great, and alternative telecasts are something that we built into our new media-rights deals to effectively increase reach and bring incremental experiences to certain parts of our fanbase. It’s one of the more successful alternative telecasts that we have, and it has a little bit of everything. If you’re a hardcore football fan, [Eli and Peyton] will talk about a Cover 2 scheme, or they’ll bring in guests that are talking about everyday life. It has been a broader play than anyone expected.

On media and labor stability for 10 years:
Anderson: What we can’t do is be complacent, and we’re making sure we’re taking our time to understand what the next 10 years are going to look like. We can take our time on things like legalized sports betting and think about how it’s going to involve and engage our fans. There’s understanding consumer engagement and what that’s going to look like in 10 years.

Rolapp: I think we’re in a time of unprecedented stability for the league in front of a backdrop of unprecedented change. It’s an advantage to have the stability, but, if you do the same things over and over, by the time that next television or labor agreement comes up, you shouldn’t expect the same result. We’re in a position where we can invest and have an amazing opportunity with fan development, media strategy, and consumer products and sponsorship. It’s probably one of the most exciting times to be with the league.

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