Emphasis on Athletes Brings a Younger Audience in the NFL’s 100th Season

CMO Tim Ellis on how the league is staying relevant at Adweek's Challenger Brands summit

Tim Ellis sat down with Adweek CEO Jeff Litvack at Challenger Brands 2020. - Credit by Sean T. Smith for Adweek
Headshot of Ryan Barwick

Key insights:

Not every brand lasts long enough to celebrate its 100th birthday. Not every brand is the National Football League. And while not a Challenger Brand in the traditional sense—it’s been the most popular sports league in the United States since the early ’70s—it was seeing the same headwinds facing every legacy entertainment product: declining younger audiences and lack of relevancy.

That’s why the league turned to Tim Ellis, one of the brains behind one of the most popular Super Bowl commercials of all time, the Volkswagen “Force” spot.

At Adweek’s Challenger Brand summit, Ellis was joined onstage by Adweek CEO Jeff Litvack to talk about the league’s 100th season and what he’s doing to “future proof” the NFL.

“I was brought in to bridge those generations between our core audiences and the younger generations,” Ellis said. “How do you reach and engage that elusive younger audience without losing your core? Let’s not just go after them, let’s inject youth culture into the NFL.”

Using what the league is calling its “Live Content Correspondent,” the NFL is matching its star athletes with influencers and icons on and off the field, and blasting that content across the league’s own channels as well as the players’ and the clubs’ social accounts. That means the Wu-Tang Clan hangs with the New York Jets on Game Day, or Fortnite star Ninja meets fans at a Detroit Lions game.

Over social platforms, the league has accumulated 2.5 million TikTok followers and 2.4 billion video views on Instagram, meeting young people on the platforms they’re already engaging with. Within its own network of players, NFL athletes reach an audience of 194 million Instagram followers, an increase of 20% since last season.

The league is also putting its players in the spotlight.

“A big part of our strategy is getting the helmets off of the players and showing them as human beings, and not just as elite, world-class athletes,” Ellis said.

So far, it’s worked. The league reached an all-time high of 187.3 million total fans this season, an increase of 8 million, and despite six seasons of youth decline, this season the league saw a 2% increase among fans 12-24 years old. Of those millions of fans, more than 47% are women, and 30 million are Latinx.

The NFL remains one of the last juggernauts of live television (NFL games accounted for 80 of the top 100 telecasts in 2019, the most in league history), and its viewership continues to grow, increasing by 5% last season.

Going under the helmet is also beneficial for everyone involved. Not only does it help the league create its own content and reach new audiences, but it also allows athletes to leverage the league’s audience for their own opportunities.

“These athletes care about their own brands, they’re online, they’re building their own audiences,” said Ellis. “We’re about connecting these guys.”

@RyanBarwick ryan.barwick@adweek.com Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.