How to Make Preseason Football Palatable Instead of Just Passable
by Hombre de Acero
Note: Many of you know Hombre’s website, Steel Curtain Rising, which keeps him pretty busy. We’re thrilled that he is making his Going Deep debut. Enjoy!
The headline speaks for itself. If we accept ESPN.com’s declaration that “The Steelers need this preseason to die after suspensions, injuries, lifeless defense” then let’s accept that this author is making his debut article here on Going Deep by walking on thin ice. Fair enough. But what’s the point of walking on thin ice if the water below you isn’t deep?
Summer after summer, the groaning about preseason football gets louder and louder. And the comparisons get more clever. “Like watching paint dry…” “About as entertaining as a root canal…” “As fascinating as cutting finger nails….” This is all unfortunate. Because preseason football doesn’t need to be received this way.
- Stop Treating Preseason Football as Something It is Not
- Take Preseason on the Road
- Preseason Football: A Proving Ground, Not a Preview
Preseason has inherent value both from a football, business and entertainment perspective.
No, that’s not a misprint. Far from it, however unpopular such sentiments might be in Steelers Nation. And that unpopularity is understandable, given that the Steelers have lost Maurkice Pouncey, Shaun Suisham and Garrett Hartley in preseason.
Those losses, while damaging and discouraging don’t change the truth.
I’ve written variants of the “Eat your broccoli, eat your brussels sprouts – and remember preseason football is good for you” treatises elsewhere, and I will simply rehash the basic premises here because they’re relevant to the larger point: What’s wrong with preseason football isn’t so much the product as the packaging.
From a fan’s perspective, preseason football offers a three pronged value-prop:
- Preseason gives fans their only chance to evaluate young talent on their own
- Preseason offers a good preview of how individual units are shaping up
- The guys playing late in preseason games are 100% guaranteed to play their hearts out
Points one and three should be self-evident. Point number two is less so and while it’s not always true, most of the time it is. Case in point—Steelers Nation has probably seen enough to know it’s not too early to worry about the 2015 Steelers defense. But fans and the press lose sight of these three points because how the NFL markets its preseason product.
My first boss in marketing taught me something very important about the dynamics of the entertainment marketing. At the time, TNT was promoting “7 Days of 007.” This was prior to Netflix, YouTube or other view on demand services, and my boss used that campaign as an example of how packaging help shapes the product itself.
Most viewers had already seen the Bond films before, he contended, but the catchy way TNT bundled them together they helped remind fans of why they liked Bond in the first place, and showing them together helped focus interest in them and drive ratings.
The NFL would do wise to begin applying the same concepts to the way it packages preseason football.
Stop Treating Preseason Football as Something It Is Not
The NFL came of age in the 1970’s as the premier sport in the United States, and only has deepened its hold on US culture, concern about brain trauma not withstanding. Since then, the NFL has also seen end-to-end evolution in every aspect of its operation, except perhaps for preseason football.
In the 70’s, 80’s and even into the 1990’s, preseason football was a big deal.
That’s because the time from February to July, save for the NFL Draft, really was the off season. The advent of free agency in 1993 changed that in a big way, but fans were still only able to read about football. They still couldn’t see it. In that context, preseason football was an oasis. In marketing terms, it meant that as a product, preseason football could stand on its own.
Thanks to YouTube, DVD’s, NFL.com, and every NFL teams’ website, fans have multiple means to get their football fix 24 hours a day, 365 days a week. Similarly, the NFL scouting combine, free agency, the draft, OTA’s and mini-camp have rendered the true off season to something that starts in June and ends in July. In contrast, NFL preseason remains stuck in the ‘80’s.
The first change the NFL can make is to stop charging full prices for preseason tickets and make their purchase optional for season ticket holders.
This is a no-brainer. Long gone are the days when coaches such as Chuck Noll would use the final preseason game as a dress rehearsal for the regular season. Charging major league prices for less than major league talent isn’t just morally wrong, its bad business, and there’s ample evidence to prove it.
In his coverage of the Hall of Fame game, veteran Pittsburgh journalist John Steigerwald didn’t choose write about Jerome Bettis or focus on the debuts of defenders like Bud Dupree or Doran Grant. Instead he titled his article “First String Money for Third String Football.” This isn’t surprising. But here’s an observation no one ever makes:
A lot more people make the “major league prices for less than major league talent” complaint than are actually impacted by it.
Seriously. The average fan isn’t paying a cent for preseason tickets, yet they still complain about their regular season cost. If nothing else, that shows you how much of a problem the NFL has on its hands.
Preseason football is an exhibition, and the NFL would do well to begin treating it accordingly.
The root of exposition is “expose.” Webster’s defines expose as “to cause (someone) to experience something or to be influenced or affected by something.” If the NFL were smart, they would use preseason football to expose more people to the sport. They could begin by taking preseason football on the road.
The NFL is the nation’s most popular sports league, yet only 32 cities have NFL teams.
That opens the NFL to an almost endless stream of locales who’d doubtlessly love to get the chance to see NFL football in their back yards. The Steelers and Eagles could face off at Beaver Stadium in State College. The Browns and Bengals could play at Ohio State in Columbus. The Redskins and the Panthers could play in Richmond. Wouldn’t a Falcon’s-Panthers preseason game at the Citadel generate some excitement for the NFL in Charleston?
These sorts of alternative venues choices are intuitive for many, but not all franchises.
The beauty of it is, they don’t need to be. The NFL has reams of data on television ratings and website traffic that they can tie to geographies. That makes it simple to pinpoint where interest is strongest. In the same vein, that data also gives the NFL a chance to see where its popularity might benefit from a boost of having live game staged nearby.
While the idea of bringing live NFL action to places where it is traditionally inaccessible has a populist appear, it also benefits the bottom line, by allowing both teams and the league to connect with new pockets of fans.
This premise doesn’t simply apply to live preseason games, but also to televised ones.
Down here in Buenos Aires, Argentina, NFL fans can (legally) watch American football by either on-line via NFL’s Game Pass or on TV via DirectTV’s NFL Sunday ticket. But Direct TV does not carry preseason games and you must pay for NFL Game Pass to watch preseason. Let’s submit that the business logic of the NFL charging fans in developing markets like South America for regular season games is dubious, but charging for preseason is sheer idiocy.
Similarly, the NFL should take advantage of technology, and allow fans in the US to watch their favorite teams in preseason, regardless of location. The reason why the NFL doesn’t want to do that is the same reason why they don’t take preseason on the road – the NFL owners don’t want to lose the revenue they get from their club seats and luxury boxes.
That’s short sighted because ultimately the money lost would be an investment and not a cost.
Properly promoting preseason football means the NFL needs to recognize that the nature of its product has changed. All of griping about preseason football proves that the days of “Football is Finally Back!” can no longer carry the exhibition season.
Preseason’s purpose isn’t to showcase the NFL’s best talent, it’s to develop that talent.
The NFL must recalibrate its marketing accordingly. Fortunately, the challenge isn’t that daunting. Franco Harris took his very first preseason carry and was supposed to run off of the left end. He started that way, but there was nothing there. So he planted his foot, reversed course, and took off for a 75 yard touchdown.
Dick Hoak recounts how, after that play, Chuck Noll walked over and instructed “Dick, don’t over-coach him.”
Somewhere, in the archives of WTAE, NBC or NFL Films the tape of that play has to exist. Ditto Ben Roethlisberger’s first preseason touchdown pass. Ditto Greg Lloyd’s first preseason sack. Tape of Merril Hoge breaking tackles on some steamy summer evening must be out there. All it takes is someone with access and the elbow grease to find it.
Then the product sells itself.
Imagine gold lettering on a black background proclaiming “The Making of a Hall of Famer” fading to semi-grainy footage of Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium with a voice over informing “On an August evening back in 1972, Chuck Noll gave a rookie running back out of Penn State his first NFL carry. This is what happened….”
Cut to image of Harris taking it to the house. If audio commentary of Myron Cope and Jack Flemming can be included, all the better.
“Noll’s instruction to his coaches? ‘Don’t over-coach him’ and Franco Harris’ Hall of Fame career was born.
Every great NFL player cuts his teeth in preseason. That’s what it’s all about. Tune into KDKA tomorrow to see the next generation of Steelers take their first steps.”
Cut to Tag Line
NFL Preseason – A Proving Ground, Not a Preview
The concept is simple, and can be applied and reproduced across all 32 NFL teams (well, maybe not in Jacksonville) as well as nationally. If distributed wisely, it is easy to imagine such promos going viral.
Counting the post season and the bye week, the NFL is in operation approximately 25 weeks out of the year. That means the preseason accounts for 16% of its inventory. Right now that’s 16% that’s not so much consumed as it is tolerated by a growing portion of the fan base. With just a little bit of creativity, the NFL can reposition preseason football so that it’s a productive part of its portfolio again.