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Of all the major professional sports leagues in the U.S., the NFL has arguably been the most innovative in the use of social media to attract new fans and engage audiences over the past few years. While other sports – such as baseball – have seen a decline in viewership as well as constant concerns about an aging fan base, the NFL has been remarkably successful in engaging new fans in the coveted 18-to-34 demographic by going full steam ahead with new social media platforms. But now comes the biggest test yet for the NFL social media experiment: how to keep things going amidst a pandemic and growing anxiety about social protests spreading across the nation. In short, the NFL social media experiment is about to get very, very interesting.
The NFL and Generation Z
Without a doubt, the NFL has been a pioneer in using social media for engaging casual and diehard fans alike, especially when it comes to attracting entirely new audiences to the game. Just like any successful brand rolling out a new digital marketing strategy, the NFL has realized that it must have a robust presence across every major social media platform. While the major focus has been on opening up digital video content for platforms like Facebook and YouTube, there has also been a secondary focus on everything from Reddit to TikTok.
To its credit, the NFL has thus far seen success with just about every social media strategy it has adapted. To attract young gamers and e-sports enthusiasts, the NFL has started streaming games on Twitch and embracing e-sports. To attract young viewers of mobile video, the NFL has partnered with both YouTube and Facebook Watch to offer exclusive content. And, to attract the very youngest viewers who prefer to consume content in 3-minute blocks rather than 3-hour blocks, the NFL has even signed a multi-year partnership with TikTok. Add in the fact that the NFL is doing everything it can to promote young new stars of the game (such as Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson) via social media, and it’s clear that the NFL is laying a very strong foundation for its future success with young fans.
The NFL and the post-coronavirus world
But here’s where things get interesting – there are already growing signs that the NFL social media experiment might be going terribly wrong, due to events that are largely outside of its control. Take, for example, the whole #BlackLivesMatter movement. It’s impossible for the NFL to ignore this growing call for social justice in the nation, and it has already become clear that the NFL is going to do everything in its power to promote this cause, even going so far as to embrace the Black National Anthem and the wearing of helmet decals supporting #BlackLivesMatter.
This is bound to cause tremendous controversy in the national media as soon as the first NFL games start and players start kneeling or making other public gestures of support. How, exactly, is the NFL going to react on social media when it once again becomes the focal point of the nation’s attention? With any movement, there is always a backlash, and then a backlash to the backlash, which is why now is such a defining moment for the NFL. If “peaceful protests” transform into something new and even more radical, you just know that the media is going to stir up some debate around this issue.
Social media scenario testing
And, to make matters even more interesting for the NFL on social media, there’s the whole issue of “woke culture” and “cancel culture” completely taking over the league and creating a social media feeding frenzy. We’ve already seen what can happen with the Washington Redskins – a team that held the same name for nearly a century is now being forced to call itself The Washington Football Team until further notice. If fans were willing to cancel the Redskins, why would it be any different with, say, the Kansas City Chiefs? This is where things get really interesting, because promoting the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes have become vital to the NFL’s popularity on social media. Mahomes is one of those next gen superstars who are expected to fill the void when aging stars like Tom Brady eventually retire.
Just like any brand, the NFL no longer fully controls the way fans and followers view it, or how people talk about it online. If the NFL goes “full woke” this season, it might turn off fans. If the NFL starts losing popular players to coronavirus throughout the season, it could have a huge impact on how the NFL markets itself on social media. And that’s assuming that the entire NFL plays as planned – there are already rumblings that the MLB season is now in trouble due to the coronavirus, so what happens if the baseball season gets canceled before the NFL even has a chance to start its season? And, finally, what if the whole controversy around TikTok explodes into the mainstream, and the NFL gets sucked into a huge national debate around Chinese social media apps?
What happens next?
You see, there are plenty of ways that the NFL social media experiment could go wrong this year. That’s not being a skeptic; it’s being a realist. We’re living in a very interesting period of time, in which social protests, the coronavirus pandemic, and a bitter presidential election battle are all happening at the same time. NFL social media managers, get ready: you might need to shift your focus from recruitment and engagement to full-blown crisis PR within the next 90 days.