How the NFL is Developing Brand Loyalty with Millennials

By Andrew Deen, - In Marketing

Picture of a young millennial at a NFL game

Photo Credit: Julie, Dave & Family

It’s no secret that sports are a big business in the United States, especially when it comes to football. The NFL seems to have it made: they have an extremely loyal fan base with the highest brand loyalty of any professional sports league in the country—at least for now.

As Lisa Lacy of Linkdex notes, even scandals have not prevented the brand’s ongoing success, including the NFL’s continual annual sponsorship growth and expanding female fan base in 2014. But is that loyalty going to carry over to the up and coming Millennial Generation?

The generation that will soon hold a large share of American spending power? While football is still an extremely popular sport in the majority of households, the NFL has been slipping when it comes to engaging millennial trust and loyalty to the NFL brand. But why?

A Slipping Public Image

According to Ohio University, the NFL was doing an outstanding job of pulling in fans in 2014, with broadcasts drawing 19.2 million viewers per game on average, and accounting for all top 20 spots of the most-watched programming that fall. An impressive 202.3 million unique viewers watched during that season.

With numbers like these, it’s hard to believe that millennials have a poor view of the NFL, but surveys have shown that the league has a long way to go before it builds up consumer trust with this key demographic.

OU reports that Jeetendr Sehdev surveyed 3,000 Americans, and concluded that millennials as a whole are not impressed with the NFL brand. Sixty-one percent of the millennials surveyed believed that the NFL was a “sleazy” organization, and that 67 percent did not trust NFL players.

This was even before scandals involving players like Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson surfaced, causing even more turmoil within the NFL and shaking the brand’s reputation. While the NFL often seems to shake off such scandals and continues to see growth, that will not be the case if millennials do not eventually trust the organization.

Aside from lacking trust for the NFL organization, a trend is developing amongst millennials where they do not purchase cable packages the way their parents did. Instead, they often only subscribe to streaming-only packages like Netflix and Hulu, or simply watch videos on YouTube and other platforms on smartphones, tablets, and computers.

Because of this, the NFL and other sports leagues are having to consider a greater online presence through social media and streaming services.

1. New Social Media Efforts

Bringing the game online is becoming crucial to captivating the millennial demographic. Social media is the key to reaching a younger audience, as is making content both compelling and more accessible.

The NFL and all other big sports leagues in the U.S. have started using Snapchat “Stories,” and the NFL signed a contract with the social media company to offer weekly content and outline terms for advertising revenue.

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Snapchat Stories give audiences different perspectives from friends and celebrities around key moments from games and other content that appeals directly to the millennial audience.

2. Streaming through Twitter

In April of 2016, the LA times reported that the league had chosen Twitter for streaming Thursday night football games in the upcoming season. Twitter viewing will allow fans to access the games on their mobile devices, boosting the NFL’s young viewership and providing premium programming for the social network.

According to sports consultant Lee Burke, that’s a win-win, even though speculation is that the NFL is receiving a much smaller payment for the rights of its exclusive content than it has demanded from TV networks and other online platforms. As he says:

“Twitter offers up to the NFL worldwide digital distribution, tens of millions of millennials and social media buzz. The NFL offers up a track record of driving the growth of every media technology over the past 50 years, from broadcast TV to satellite to broadband.”

Twitter, as a free platform, will offer the content at no cost to viewers, and unlocks an important younger demographic for the NFL. Giving Twitter the exclusive online rights to these NFL games also opens up a larger international market, as the LA Times states that 80% of Twitter users live outside the U.S.

3. Digitizing Stadiums for Millennial Fans

In addition to hosting content on social media, the NFL and other leagues are beginning to add increased connectivity to key stadiums, which allows fans to use league apps and share the experience of being at the game on social networks.

Picture of the Denver Broncos Stadium

Denver Broncos Stadium

The Broncos, Patriots and 49ers teams are among those with upgraded stadiums providing free Wi-Fi access to all attendees. These upgrades offer huge advantages for fans while helping the NFL spread brand awareness.

For example, 40 percent of the 70,000 fans attending games at Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts access videos on their mobile devices while simultaneously watching the game.

4. Unlocking Partnership Deals

Sports media companies like Whistle Sports understand how pivoting to a new type of online media is important to building up audiences. Whistle Sports leverages several different social platforms to introduce viewers to new stars and unique content online. Though their online programming is the central component of their business, they will also be hosting live events with traveling RVs and other Whistle Sports promotions.

The NFL might want to consider partnerships with these popular new media companies who are already unlocking the potential of young viewers through social media.


Lessons to be Learned from the NBA

The NFL may be starting to work on its social media presence, but it still needs to brush up in a few areas, and learn a thing or two from leagues who are successfully engaging the millennial audience.

The NBA in particular, is doing very well in keeping the average age of fans stable, notes the Washington Post. The average age of viewers for other sports continues to rise as time goes on, but the NBA has been able to reenergize a young loyal fan base very well.

Though nearly all top players across American sports are millennials, NBA players in particular are more connected to fans through social media than players from other sports, dwarfing the NFL and MLB players’ following.

Despite the deal the NFL has made with Twitter, the NBA account has more followers than the NFL’s account by about 3 million. Darren Rovell, an ESPN journalist delves into just why this is:

“People talk about Russell Westbrook’s glasses and Dwayne Wade’s shoes. When you look at the numbers in terms of most Twitter and Instagram followers, the NBA blows other sports away.”

With this in mind, the NFL might need to do more than just sign a deal with Twitter. They may have to emphasize player participation in the world of social media to help build up the trust that many millennials simply don’t feel for NFL players.

Trust is Key to Loyalty

Building trust for NFL players will also need to go hand in hand with creating a more positive image of the league itself. While other leagues (like the NBA), have banned players and owners for racism, violence and other scandals, the NFL has not taken a strong stance on these issues, and players have been allowed to continue in the game once their legal issues and suspensions have been settled.

Trust is an enormous part of building a loyal millennial audience, and the NFL will need to rethink some policies in order to earn it.


Consultant for startups in industries from retail to biotechnology and implements lean methodology.