While the NBA’s overall ratings aren’t at the level of the NFL’s, they have shown year-over-year growth and traction with a younger audience, a contrast to the NFL’s slumping ratings and aging audience.
That’s prompted many to wonder why the NFL can’t be more like the NBA, and the latest is NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith, who raised questions about both player marketing and broadcasting.
In an interview with ESPN’s Dan Graziano, Smith said he’s been meeting with executives from NFL broadcast partners to get their thoughts on the ratings drop and how things can improve. And he said the NBA may prove an important league to consider:
Smith pointed to the success the NBA is having right now and a desire to find out more about what’s behind it.
“I think that it’s important to take a look at what’s going on in basketball, because for the most part, I think they are the only sport that more and more people are watching,” Smith said. “And my hat’s off to what they do and how they do it in the NBA. I think that you could make the argument that a lot of their programming is fresher, hipper. They do, I think, a great job of marketing their individual players, sometimes at a time when the [NFL] looks for ways to take their star players off the field. I would be interested in better understanding the relationship between the broadcast partners and the NBA, what that relationship is like, how they do their TV deals, their rights deals.”
On one level, the NFL can’t exactly fully copy the NBA. Smith is right that the NBA does a better job of promoting individual players, but it’s a lot easier for them to do that given the differences between the leagues. First, NBA rosters are much smaller (12 active players per game versus 46, 13-15 total active-roster players versus 53), so there’s more opportunity to promote individual stars. NBA players also don’t have helmets in the way of them being recognizable, and key NBA figures will likely be on the court in crunch time; that’s not the case in football, where the offensive and defensive units are separate.
The NFL does have some extremely marketable players when it comes to star quarterbacks and a few others, but on the whole, it is probably behind the NBA in athlete marketability. And it’s probably not going to ever completely close that particular gap just thanks to the structural differences that separate the two sports.
However, Smith may have a point that the NFL can learn from the NBA on some player marketability fronts. A key one may be embracing players’ personalities. The NFL has its share of characters, from Marshawn Lynch to Rob Gronkowski, but the league’s often appeared to clamp down on different forms of expression and endorsement deals, from twice banning Tony Romo’s fantasy football convention to trying to fine Lynch for wearing a “Beast Mode” hat. Those aren’t stories you’d likely read about the NBA.
NFL teams have also often pushed for players who keep quiet and don’t make off-the-field headlines for their views while passing over some who do, like Colin Kaepernick. The NFL seems to want a lot of its players to just be there to do their job, to borrow from the Patriots, while the NBA does more to welcome and market its unique players.
Smith’s best point may come from his comment that “a lot of their programming is fresher, hipper.” This is an excellent commentary on much of the NFL broadcasting universe. There are some exceptions, such as the lighter and funnier Good Morning Football, but so much NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE studio programming takes itself incredibly seriously and isn’t all that interesting as a result.
By contrast, the antics and personalities of the NBA on TNT crew have proven some of the best marketing for that league, and ESPN’s NBA programming is going that way as well, to say nothing of other things like NBA TV’s The Starters and Turner’s Players Only franchise.
The NBA not only has a great on-court product right now, it has a whole bunch of pretty amazing broadcasting products that enhance rather than detract from that experience, with likable and interesting personalities who get fans to tune in. That’s not really the case with many NFL broadcasts or with much of the studio programming, and maybe that’s where things can really improve. Of course, the players’ union doesn’t necessarily have a huge role in determining how broadcasts go, but it’s notable that Smith is having these meetings, listening to broadcast executives, and voicing his own concerns.
Maybe Smith and the NFLPA can convince NFL teams to let players show more personality, and convince networks to let broadcasters show more personality. The NFL doesn’t have some of the NBA’s advantages when it comes to player marketability, but it still has a massive audience, and it still has a lot going for it.
Some tweaks might go a long way towards slowing or reversing the NFL’s year-over-year declines. And while the NFL can’t just do exactly what the NBA is doing, looking that way for inspiration isn’t a bad idea. However, it does seem unlikely that they’ll fully be able to implement some of what’s led to the NBA’s success.