Any fans watching this year’s Super Bowl saw at least a few of the five ads for “NFL Evolution,” (NFLE) the NFL’s public relations answer to the growing concern over football and head injuries. Between insurance issues, lawsuits, and even the erosion of the league’s foundation of K-12 players, the worst-case scenarios for how football fares during this era of concussion awareness are plentiful. Less clear is the likelihood any of these scenarios will come to pass.
While brain injury as public topic is a new hurdle, the league has overcome many difficulties and developed an approach that’s informed NFLE. Before concussions and CTE became buzzwords, the NFL’s two main concerns were public visibility and maintaining a cheap talent pool. It ably handled the former thanks to decades of promotional work that almost paradoxically managed to make the NFL be both a titan of tradition and the “next big thing” in sports; and an iron grip that was kept clenched on licensing partners and rivals alike. Even missteps like the European leagues were contained failures that never tarnished the brand.
NFL owners have handled the talent issue more discretely. Most important in their cause was building an alliance with college football programs that allowed the NFL to avoid the hindrance of running a farm system. The system is mutually beneficial–schools have greater access to the game’s best players in the most financially rewarding sport, while the NFL’s future talent is developed at no cost to the league–though the NFL has exerted its influence of late by encroaching on traditional college game nights as much as antitrust statutes will allow. Compared to the MLB’s massive farm system and the NBA’s mix of an expensive developmental league and uncontrollable foreign leagues, the NFL gets quite a bargain.
The NFL works further down the supply chain, too. Football is an almost prohibitively expensive sport for many K-12 schools and youth leagues, and it was viewed with a wary eye by parents even before there was much awareness of head trauma risk. Coupled with more recent concerns that the population of sporting youths is dwindling thanks to electronic enticements, and it’s conceivable football could see both future talent and viewers siphoned off to other forms of entertainment. The league’s reaction has been to place a greater focus on reaching children through digital media, providing funding for youth programs through the NFL Youth Football Fund, and beginning an array of child-friendly health/wellness ventures such as NFL Youth Education Town to the more recent NFL Play 60.
The NFL Evolution campaign takes all these lessons and condenses them into a more aggressive package. “Forever Forward Forever Football” (sic) is the motto. The emphasis on “forever” isn’t an accident: with so much uncertainty on the health front, the league has doubled-down on portraying the game as an integral part of American life. While earlier NFLE ads focused on the history of the league and its growth into the modern game (and clumsily including in the ads imagery of players involved in concussion lawsuits), the latest batch courts families more than fans. Three of the five new Super Bowl spots focused on youth players, including one that was just footage of Internet celebrity Samantha Gordon ripping off a long run. Regarding the remaining two, one showed a mother and small child (the latter in a Raiders helmet) as they ostensibly watched a game, and the other was nothing more than home movie footage of the Kennedy family chucking the ball around a backyard in Camelot.
The NFL Evolution web page takes a more direct approach. As I write this, the featured items on the home page include:
- A piece on how football has “enriched” Mike Tomlin’s life
- Three articles questioning the concussion practices of the NHL, NBA, and NCAA
- A post on the NFL’s safety summit
- An entire side panel on the league’s funding for research on player safety
- And two posts that cast doubt on our understanding of concussion risk (in ways both favorable and unfavorable to the sport)
It’s a shotgun effort that simultaneously declares the game safe and modern, then shrugs and says “but we’re still making sure” and “the other guys are even worse.” The ads are especially divergent as they now target every demographic, with women factoring far more heavily than any PR campaign I can remember. It seems an unsophisticated approach for the NFL to craft something that relies on wooing moms (or at least stereotypical moms), but the tonal shift and its presence in the most important advertising window of the year only reinforces that this is indeed intentional. Compare the NFLE spots to Chrysler’s much-discussed “God Made a Farmer” ad, which featured the raw imagery and stentorian narration we associate with the typical NFL’s promotional efforts–I’m surprised a fog-breathing Dick Butkus didn’t climb into a Ram at the end.
As for the NFLE website, I see little reason for the league to have a hands-off enough approach with the project to let an independent management team try to present the issue fairly. There’s just no business sense in doing so, not when the league’s taking body blows. NFLE is a promotional tool that pairs facts with feel-good advertising and deflects attention to other sports. It’d take a legal intervention (as happened to the cigarette industry) to expect anything different.
While it might be fun to argue just how manipulative the NLFE effort is, the campaign will ultimately play a small role the game’s future. Though some were quick to equate the Super Bowl’s power outage as bit of symbolism befitting a falling sport, the end isn’t so clear or inevitable. The league can thrive with just this level of uncertainty. Lawsuits can be weathered, the promise of dollars will always lure risk-takers to the game, and an uncertain public won’t pull their children from the field en masse without better evidence.
Things like NFL Evolution can work in such an uncertain environment. Provided technology keeps advancing, however, the uncertainty will disappear and we’ll have a truer understanding of football’s future. Along the way, we’ll learn if NFLE was a savvy move that helped the game get through a rough patch, or a tactic that only delayed fundamental changes to the sport, its stature, or both.