Today, the iconic red, white and blue Shield of the National Football League (NFL) symbolizes much more than a professional sports league. Driven by rising fandom, that Shield has become a major, cultural touchpoint embedded in the DNA of our country and its people. So much so, the Shield basically owns a day of the week! With immense cultural penetration demonstrated through the level of viewership, conversation, and coverage across various channels, the NFL continues to capitalize on the passion around their product. They are expanding their product into a true spectacle, creating more and more opportunities for fans, networks, and brands, to open up their wallets and be a part of the cultural phenomenon on both a national and global level.
Keeping up with the league’s evolution, brands competitively fight for attention amid the NFL’s spectacle, and a need grows for marketers to explore alternative avenues other than the game itself and the in-season window. With that, the NFL offseason has become a valuable space to engage with consumers. Despite the absence of games, the league is anything but stationary in the offseason. And smartly observing how fans are craving more content, the NFL is enhancing its offseason tentpole moments to satiate fans (and of course, to gain a buck or two). Athletes always say there is no offseason, and now, the same can certainly be said for brands.
This isn’t to say that in-season no longer holds value, or that off-season moments outshine the main product in games. There’s no denying the amount of eyeballs and engagement that activating in-season can offer. Even with 2022’s slight drop in viewership, the NFL accounted for a record 82% of the most watched telecasts last year. On social, the NFL is shattering previous levels of interactivity, reaching more unique users around kickoff than last year across Instagram and Snapchat, and setting records for weekly regular season video views across Twitter and TikTok.
The offseason though, provides a haven for brands to connect with a target demographic of avid fans. These avid fans spend more money and more time in the NFL ecosystem year-round than other types of fans, so the offseason is a primetime window to focus marketing efforts towards that segment.
The NFL Draft is a prime example of a major off-season moment. League sponsors consistently show up here as they leverage on-the-ground access, league, channel, and player assets to turn this moment into a major marketing opportunity. P&G’s Style Lounge preps prospects and their families to look and feel their best before the big day, Panini’s fan zone gives draftees (and fans) their first trading card in real time. But as the Draft has turned into a spectacle, this too has become very saturated. Over those three days, NFL sponsors activate more than 300 different experiences.
The opportunities at NFL Draft beg the question: where should brands turn next? NFL Training Camp is a major white space for brands to engage with avid fans, while also being much less brand-saturated. It uniquely provides opportunity for consumer interactivity, as thousands (literally, thousands) flock to watch their teams prep for next season every day of camp. Even without an official league sponsorship, brands are able to nimbly partner with individual teams and can create a more optimized plan by choosing select teams based on priority regions and markets. Training Camp offers a longer activation window than Draft, spanning from late July through August (dates vary per team). Through Taylor's analysis of social conversation (Brandwatch, 2023) we can tell that the length of peak interest and conversation around Training Camp has a longer shelf life than that of Draft. While social conversation (total post volume) around NFL Draft is greater than that of Training Camp, Training Camp conversation sustains a longer high point of relevancy than Draft. After the initial Draft weekend (last weekend of April), interest around Draft experiences a sharp and quick decline and remains at a low point until the following year. Whereas, interest around Training Camp slowly and continuously increases at the start of summer (early June), peaking towards the end of summer (early August), and slowly levels out towards the fall/start of the new season (early September).
Training Camp is a hot commodity for fans, especially as offseason blockbuster trades become a spectacle themselves, fans are eager to catch first glimpses of the newest superstar in town. A show like HBO’s Hard Knocks feeds into Training Camp’s growing allure. Even with all of these considerations, Training Camp is heavily untapped. Up until now, majority of Training Camp activations are mainly localized plays from local brands and stores, or, bigger brands choosing select or a single team to show up in, leaving open space for a regional or national brand presence that is targeting a wide audience. Additionally, Training Camp activations and partnerships historically lack strong brand tie-in, consisting of simple logo and name slaps across team facilities and social posts, sweepstakes, and minor experiential moments.
Another offseason moment with rich interest, coverage, and conversation is the NFL Combine, a week-long athletic and intelligence showcase of Draft prospects in February in Indianapolis. While not in a major media market and a more limited fan interaction than that of Draft, the centralized activation has benefits. The magic in Combine isn’t on the ground, but around social media opportunities and the window to virality. Year after year, the Combine has led to moments that have exploded across social media, going viral across league channels, sports and pop culture outlet channels, and fan conversation. From DK Metcalf’s emotional family phone call, to Shaquem Griffin’s one-handed Combine performance, and many more in between. If a brand can leverage a real-time monitoring and reactionary strategy that accounts for these types of moments, the sky’s the limit. Can’t connect with athletic performances? Well, the Combine’s viral moments aren’t just around impressive athletic feats, but have encompassed emotional and celebratory moments, family moments, funny player personality or blooper-like moments, and much more.
The evolution of the Shield’s product will only continue to evolve. As once minor moments turn into major cultural spectacles with endless brand appearances and noise, brands will turn to untapped corners of football where fans organically congregate. Will Training Camp and/or Combine become the next NFL Draft, and if so, what other offseason moments will blossom and offer the next great white space?