Football as Product

The bottom line was that those running the NFL could no longer take football’s powerful appeal for granted, and they feared losing an entire generation of lifetime football fans (and that generation once lost might spawn another, then another).

(From 1970 to 1973, Michael Oriard played professional football with the Kansas City Chiefs. After completing his doctorate in American literature at Stanford, he joined the OSU English department in 1976.)

To a short list of milestones marking the creation of the new NFL — May 7, 1982, when Al Davis won the right to move his franchise; February 25, 1989, when Jerry Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys; May 6, 1993, when the owners and players finally signed a labor agreement — should be added July 12, 1994. On that day, the NFL announced that Sara Levinson, former copresident of MTV, had been hired as the new president of NFL Properties. This seemed like news of the you’ve-got-to-be- kidding sort. The president of a cable network feeding highly sexualized music videos to teenagers, and a woman as well, would head the NFL division that markets to fans of huge guys who grunt and sweat a lot. The significance of Levinson’s hiring was perhaps mostly symbolic. MTV represented the cultural forces against which the NFL had held up as a bulwark since the 1960s. The NFL was also, at all levels, overwhelmingly a men’s club. Hiring Levinson to market professional football represented a decision at the highest levels that NFL football was no longer your father’s Sunday pastime.

Explanations followed. MTV and Levinson represented two potential audiences that the NFL coveted, young people and women. Her hiring, however, confirmed something more fundamental: that the NFL now openly regarded itself as a "brand" and pro football as a "product" to be marketed…

By 1993, the year before Levinson arrived, NFLP’s gross revenues reached $2.5 billion, a five-fold increase since 1986. A marketing and promotions division sold corporate sponsorships, and a publishing division still produced the game programs sold in stadiums; but retail licensing, to some 350 manufacturers of 2,500 different items by 1991, generated the overwhelming bulk of revenues…

The NFL’s operating assumption, that football sold itself and could be used to sell other products, seemed to change when Levinson came in to promote NFL football itself more aggressively. Whether the hiring of Levinson, within months of a new labor agreement, new television contracts, and league expansion, was itself a tipping point or just a symbol of it, league officials in general and those at NFLP in particular began to talk more openly about NFL football as a "brand" in "the competitive business of sports and entertainment." The NFL now competed, one spokesman in 1995 explained, not just with the NBA, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball, but also with "Batman movies, Aladdin and Pocahontas," the entire world of popular entertainment and leisure options. Owners and players took the same side here. As Gene Upshaw put it, NFL owners no longer competed for revenues against NFLPA [National Football League Players Association], but hand-inhand with the NFLPA against "all the other entertainment choices out there: the movies, music, theater."

What the hiring of Levinson meant to the National Football League was the subject of a shrewd essay in The New Yorker by John Seabrook in 1997. As [former NFL Commissioner Paul] Tagliabue explained to Seabrook, ESPN and Fox had introduced a new "attitude" in sport broadcasting, one "more youthful" and "iconoclastic." In addition, polls showed that kids had become more interested in basketball and soccer than in football, and more and more mothers did not want their sons risking injuries in contact sports. The bottom line was that those running the NFL could no longer take football’s powerful appeal for granted, and they feared losing an entire generation of lifetime football fans (and that generation once lost might spawn another, then another). Millions still lived and died with their favorite teams each Sunday, but those passionate fans were aging, and there were other millions coming up behind them to be wooed. As Seabrook put it, Tagliabue "needed someone who could make football attractive to a new generation without disgusting the middleaged bratwurst-and-beer types who enjoy going to games with their faces painted in the colors of their teams." Reporters for Business Week used similar language when they saluted Levinson as "just what the NFL, that 75-year-old temple of testosterone, needs as it tries to score with a generation of channel surfers while holding on to its core Joe Sixpack crowd."

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.