Winning game plan: how the NFL used content to build a global brand

Content marketers can learn a lot from the story of how America’s NFL cultivated its own media outlets on its way to becoming the world’s most valuable sports league

At Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in north London, on a chilly early October evening, the lights go down and video screens begin showing highlights of the Oakland Raiders; nominally the “home” team for this NFL game against the Chicago Bears. As 62,000 American-football fans watch, a solemn voiceover begins to read a poem: “The autumn wind is a pirate. Blustering in from sea…”

The game was the first of four NFL games to be played in London over five weeks during October and November. The league has been coming to London for 13 years, but 2019 saw the first games at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – the first to be purpose built for American football outside the United States. It was co-funded by the NFL to provide dressing rooms big enough for its 50-player teams and a retractable pitch that conceals a separate American football playing surface underneath.

Although American football isn’t played professionally outside North America, the NFL is the world’s most valuable sports league, with a turnover of $13 billion, and boasts 29 of the world’s 50 most valuable teams across all sports. Its steady international expansion has been driven in large part by its evolution into a media company. Few businesses can inspire the devotion that professional sport enjoys, but most can learn lessons in storytelling from the NFL.

The passion and the sound

The autumn wind is a Raider, pillaging just for fun,” the poem continues. Every Raiders fan knows the words, but most probably don’t know it was created by the league’s own film studio, NFL Films, for the 1974 Raiders season review. It’s a small example of how the fans’ image of the sport has been shaped by the NFL’s dedicated media outlets.

NFL Films was set up by Ed Sabol, an overcoat salesman with a filmmaking hobby, who paid $5,000 for the right to film the 1962 NFL Championship Game. The result so impressed the NFL commissioner, Pete Rozelle, who was a marketing man by trade, that the league eventually bought the company.

Sabol, together with his son Steve, treated each NFL game like a Hollywood film, with multiple camera angles, tight close-ups and liberal use of slow motion. The goal, Steve later told author Tom Danyluk in the book The Super ’70s, was to capture “the eyes bulging, the snot spraying, the sweat flying, the passion and the sound”.

Journalism professor Travis Vogan writes, in his history of NFL Films, Keepers of the Flame: “These films changed how football, and sport in general, is represented and imagined.”

A sophisticated aura

NFL Films helped the league create its own mythology, portraying players as brave gladiators. The work continued in a steady flow of books through its NFL Properties arm, such as the 24-volume Punt, Pass and Kick series that introduced the sport to children.

The NFL was not afraid to take itself seriously. A 1969 book The First 50 Years, published to mark the league’s 50th anniversary, went beyond simply detailing championship teams and star players and analysed why the sport had become so popular, with quotes from media theorist Marshall McLuhan and Konrad Lorenz, the Nobel Prize-winning expert on animal behaviour.

In his history of the NFL, America’s Game, sports historian Michael MacCambridge writes: “At a time when the rest of the sports world was working in small measures, the NFL began a broadly and dramatically unified set of promotional and marketing initiatives. That clarity of purpose […] created a sophisticated aura around the NFL that was unthinkable for sports entities at the time.”

In 2003, the league launched its own TV channel, NFL Network, offering breaking news among the highlights and NFL Films productions. Eventually, which had been online since the 1990s but had outsourced its content, started breaking stories too.

“The PR department over the years was very cautious about what was doing, not wanting it to be too newsworthy, but that slowly softened,” says Craig Ellenport, who was senior editor of and director of NFL Publishing from 2000 until 2012.

The NFL now had a way to communicate with its fans year-round, and of course its journalism helped to spread its brand. Ellenport says: “Nobody at was writing a story blatantly criticising a player, or a coach, or a league official. There was certainly a more positive tune to things.”

Celebrating a century

The 2019 season is the NFL’s 100th and the league is in full self-aggrandising mode, producing books and TV shows to mark the occasion. With its unique pulling power, it can bring together big names that traditional media struggles to access. For example, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, widely considered the best coach of all time, is a pundit on The NFL’s All-Time Team, a six-part series selecting the best players and coaches in league history.

Belichick is an expert on the game’s history but seldom talks to the media outside of his combative and somewhat surly press conferences. On the show, however, he is a warm, engaging presence, and happy to share his exceptional knowledge. It’s the kind of access that only the NFL could have pulled off and it connects the fans more deeply to the game.

It’s no coincidence that, since the early 1970s, American football has led baseball as America’s number one sport. When it began storytelling with NFL Films and NFL Properties, no other sports league was communicating this way. In fact, very few businesses of any kind were creating editorial content to reinforce their brand messages. Today it’s hard to find many that don’t.

“The NFL is the top sport in the US by a long way,” says Tim Crow, a sports marketing adviser. “That’s about great marketing, as much as great sport. They’ve used storytelling as part of their plan to own the weekend for their fans.”

With the US market almost at saturation point, the league is looking abroad. Since 2005, NFL games have been played in Mexico, Canada and the UK, and the league is rumoured to be considering games in Germany. The Super Bowl, the annual championship game, is watched by an estimated 60 million people outside the US. The game’s total audience of 160 million is still small compared with the UEFA Champions League football final’s 380 million worldwide viewers, but the NFL sees a chance to grow.

Its London games begin in the early afternoon because that ensures they can be shown live across the US, where it’s morning, and also as far east as China, where it’s evening. This is important to the NFL because its games usually begin in the middle of the night in China, making it difficult to reach that enormous market.

Back at Tottenham, where the fans are treated to a narrow Raiders victory, the NFL hopes to build a fanbase loyal enough to support a full-time team. If and when that happens, expect the NFL’s bards to be ready to welcome London’s new team with both poetry and prose.