Three business lessons from the NFL ratings debacle

It was just a few years ago that the NFL reigned supreme among televised professional sports. Cable and broadcast networks got into bidding wars for the right to televise games. Now it seems that the NFL has gone from champ to chump very quickly, at least if you measure it by audience trends and its treatment in the popular press.

And the problems of the NFL have had a ripple effect. ESPN was one of the winners in the last bidding war and now ESPN is one of the biggest financial boat anchors in entertainment.

ESPN went on a spending spree for broadcast rights and on-air personalities, and now it’s going through a period of severe contraction with its subscriber base tumbling mightily in recent years. I’m not pinning all of ESPN’s troubles on the sagging popularity of the NFL, but certainly that has played a role.

While NFL executives try to right the ship, the rest of us should look at the situation as a precautionary tale and learn from what has gone wrong on the gridiron.

Suffering from hubris

I think NFL leadership felt it was “too big to fail” and its popularity so embedded in the American psyche that nothing could threaten its place as the premier broadcast television sport.

The idiom “How the mighty have fallen” is as old as the Bible and it’s a testament that no one is so highly placed or so strongly positioned that they can’t be toppled. It’s a good lesson for all of us. Whether you’re Google or the most popular diner on Main Street, your position today isn’t assurance of tomorrow.

Remember the warning you see on any investment prospectus: Past performance is no guarantee of future returns.

Not tending to core

A 17 percent loss in TV ratings began in 2015 and seemed to pick up steam last season. Over exposure may have started the downward trend, but polls indicate that much of the current fan loss is due to the on-field protests that have been so much in the news.

I sympathize with NFL management because they were trying to walk a line that kept protesting players happy while not offending a large segment of the fans. Once the protests were underway, I have no idea if they could have devised a strategy that would have been less damaging to viewership.

The problem was not being able to anticipate the problem. The communication between team management, league officials, and players was not good enough to head off the problem before it got out of hand.

Further, no one seemed to understand that everyone – owners, players, league officials – should be customer focused. Again, I think they all felt that they were in an enterprise that was too big to fail. Well, the fans have the last word on that one.

Let’s be honest, the core football fan is the guy we used to call Joe Six Pack. He works hard through the week and wants to put all his daily headaches aside on Sundays to root for his team. When political strife starts to encroach on his entertainment time, he’ll find some other activity to enjoy.

The lesson is to understand who your core customers are and make their experience everything they want it to be. If it doesn’t meet their expectations, they will go elsewhere.

Taking care of employees

The spotlight has been put on player health this year, especially the long-term effects of concussions. Part of this heightened awareness comes from the plight of retired players who appear to have health problems caused by their years in the NFL. This year’s Super Bowl half time entertainer, Justin Timberlake, said his kids wouldn’t be allowed to play football.

Some families are probably turning off the games because they don’t want their kids to get interested in the sport.

I don’t think it’s any secret that for many years teams and the players themselves would take drugs so they could be back out on the playing field as soon as possible.

What should you learn from this? Treat your employees well, look after their health, and don’t forget that their long-term wellbeing is part of this. Football players lived in fear that they would lose their positions on their teams if they weren’t always on the field. Frankly, some of our employees have the same thoughts.

I know many workers who won’t take time off work when they are sick or hurt because they live in the fear of losing their jobs. Don’t let your business foster that kind of atmosphere. Let your team know that their health is your first priority.

I have no idea how next season’s ratings will be for the NFL. What do you think? Will it make a dramatic fourth quarter come back? Maybe, but getting ahead and staying ahead is a much better – and safer – strategy…in sports and in the competitive business world.