An Inside Look at NFL Media Strategies
Brian Rolapp
Brian Rolapp - Executive Vice President, NFL Media; President and CEO, NFL Network

Ogden Mills Phipps:
Thank you, Jason. Through the years we’ve been very fortunate to hear from executives and leaders of several professional sports leagues and organizations. Today for the first time we’ll hear from one of the top executives in the National Football League, one of the most successful and popular entities in the sports and entertainment world. Brian Rolapp is the executive vice president of NFL Media and president and CEO of the NFL Network. He manages all of the NFL media businesses and has spearheaded some of the largest and most comprehensive arrangements with major corporations in NFL history.

He is a graduate of Brigham Young and the Harvard Business School, and many of you are undoubtedly familiar with his very famous name. His father was Rich Rolapp, the long‑time and highly respected president of the American Horse Council and a friend to many in this room. Rich attended and spoke at the conference on more than one occasion. He was the recipient of the Jockey Club Gold Medal in 1992 for his exceptional contributions to Thoroughbred racing and the racing industry. We are thrilled and honored to welcome Brian to Saratoga.

Brian Rolapp:
Well, thank you, Mr. Phipps. It is a great honor of mine to be here. Racing has had a special place in my heart since my childhood because of my father’s commitment to the sport. My father dedicated his entire professional life to the sport of racing, and that was certainly instilled in his children.

Being here in Saratoga, along with my brother, has been a treat for us. The Jockey Club Medal, which I think he was awarded in 1992, he would often speak reverently of that, and it was by far the capstone and proudest moment of his professional career. So I thank you for having me here today, and I hope that my comments are beneficial.

I want to talk about three things today in the limited time I have, and if I speak quickly, I apologize. There is a lot I’d like to get through.

I will focus on three things. First I will tell you a little about the National Football League and our success. Second, I will outline a few of the drivers of that success that I want to highlight here. There are many, but I want to highlight a few. Third, I’d like to talk about where I spend most of my time, which is on the media business. The media business is where we make the majority of our revenues and spend a lot of our time.

Now I will not be presumptuous or suggest anything on how to better administer racing, and I would not know where to begin. You guys have forgotten more than I ever knew about the sport, but I hope some of the things I suggest today may be helpful. It’s been striking to me, I will say on a side note, how many of the issues you’ve been discussing this morning are some of the very same issues that we talk about at the NFL. So with that, I want to start with this.

Now this is a picture that hangs in my office both in New York and Los Angeles. It is a very unusual picture. It is a picture of a high school football game in Massachusetts in 1965. I’ll have you look at that for a minute. I’ll come back to it later, but there are some unusual things going on in that picture.

So who are we in the NFL? Quite simply, we’re 32 teams with 32 individual owners and specific franchise areas, just south of 1,700 players who play 256 regular season games and a postseason. They’re supported by a large part of this country: 188 million people in this country identify themselves as NFL fans. If you look at them, they include every socioeconomic, every ethnic, every group. So quite simply, the way we like to think about it is when we program television or do anything, we’re talking to America and that is a responsibility that we have.

And they show up. In season, they show up quite a bit whether it’s the kickoff all the way through Super Bowl. They love NFL football, but the fastest growing part of our business, which is interesting, is what is called the off‑season. We like to say there is no off‑season, but technically there is. That is highlighted by this year with the NFL draft from Radio City Music Hall in New York. It was the highest viewed draft in NFL history as 46 million viewers watched the teams select their future stars.

They’re showing up a lot of places. Principally, we still believe that the NFL stadium is the best way to experience NFL football. We are spending time and resources and money on building new ones and improving the ones we have.

We are just south of 99% of our tickets sold; we’d like that to be 100%. The resulting blackouts in most markets and television in your local markets and they are also showing up for people who don’t have a ticket to the game. Last year of the top 35 shows on television, 34 were NFL games. The one that wasn’t was the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, we’d like to think they were just getting ready for the Lions game later at 1 o’clock.

The average fan is just south of 10 hours a week where he is heavily consumed and she is heavily consumed in NFL football.

Why is that? What are the drivers of that success? I’ll just highlight a few today.

One is our focus on the game, a relentless focus on the action on the field and the athletes who play it. A second is the unique partnership among our individual owners and franchises, and the third is a culture of innovation which I’ll touch upon.

The game itself. We believe it begins, that the center focus of the success of the NFL, is the game. We obsess about a lot of things and this is one of them. The scoring is up over the last few years, but so is the margin of victory. So what we like to see is more points, more scoring, more action, but that doesn’t make sense unless the games are competitive. So the fact that the margins of victory are down, we really are striving for parody among teams and I think we’re achieving it.

Probably more important is the game is safer. This has been a theme throughout your discussions this morning about the health and safety of our players. We are striving to create a culture of safety within the National Football League. We are focused on making this culture on all levels of football, including professional and amateur, and it really starts with how the game is taught and how the game is policed on the field.

We have changed rules in recent years, including the targeting rule, the use of the head in football, in order to make sure our players play the games the right way and make our coaches teach the game in the right way. But that is not just for professional football, it’s also for youth football.

We have spent well over $45 million in the Head’s Up Football Program, which is designed to teach coaches, players, and parents in youth football on how to play football safely and better. We have reached so far a third of all youth that play football in this country and hope to make it 100%.

We are investing in better equipment, whether that’s better hit pads, thigh pads, knee pads, and continue to look at all equipment. But we know we can’t do it alone, we need partners.

We have announced a partnership with GE to invest $60 million with the idea of better diagnosis for treatment of head‑related injuries not only for the betterment of football, but the betterment of all sports as well as the U.S. military. We believe that health and safety is applicable to all sports, certainly with head injuries, and we’ve dedicated ourselves to investing in that. The results year over year have been significant for us.

Concussions in the game of football are down year over year. Interestingly enough, many of the things people were worried about if we took the head out of the game, would we increase injuries to the lower extremities as players start to tackle lower? And the fact is there’s been no increase in MCL or ACL injuries as well. We believe with our culture of safety and culture of health and safety among players of all ages are working.

Which moves me to the unique partnership of the National Football League. As I mentioned, we are made up of 32 individual franchises. Each one of those franchises are uniquely passionate and differentiated not only in the fans but in their brand and how they do things. The way they do things in Pittsburgh are different from the way they do things in Jacksonville and elsewhere, and we encourage that. They have different communities and different municipalities. As well they’re able to leverage those differences and customize the revenue-making opportunities for those individual markets, whether those are tickets, sponsorships, local programming or even the events that they put into their stadiums.

Having said that, while we appreciated the unique nature of each team, we also embrace the ability to work for the collective. The organization realizes the necessary benefit of working together collaboratively and that starts in a few places.

One, rules and competition. Collectively developing a set of rules, how we play the game, how we administer the game both for the benefit of the game itself and the safety of the players.

The second is an agreed-to system on how to allocate players, whether through a draft or free agency, how you sign them, how you trade them, is very important as each team needs to be competitive. I will say the combination of the salary cap and free agency has been probably the main contributor to the fact that the parody in the league that has generated the results that I shared earlier about margin and victory. Anyone in any given year can win the Super Bowl. That is a very powerful thing.

Finally, working collectively for commercial purposes, national revenue. The league: 32 teams have contributed certain rights to the national level, including media and television and sponsorship in order to generate better revenues for everybody. Most importantly, those are all equally shared. So in our view, the goal is to have competitive, healthy franchises, every single one. If a team wins, it will be based on the shrewd allocation of those resources, not because of a lack of them.

Which brings me to my third point: innovation. We focus on everything to try to do better, and it’s best encapsulated by a quote that we use often by this man, Andy Grove, who is the longtime chairman of the Intel Corporation, and he said this, “Only the paranoid survive.”

We believe that. We believe our biggest enemy is complacency. There is nothing more dangerous than entrenched success. So from our view we are sufficiently yet healthfully paranoid.

So innovation is at the heart of everything we do, and I mentioned how we allocate our media rights, how we pick our partners for media, how we expanded internationally. We’ve made a strong commitment to international expansion, specifically into the United Kingdom.

We continue to invest in stadiums, free agency, and salary cap is a very important thing we do to keep these teams competitive and to keep these players healthy.

How we do rules, how we engage with retired players. Retired players are some of our best ambassadors of NFL football, and recently we’ve launched many programs to get them more involved in football so when their playing days are done, they’re not done being involved with the NFL.

How do we engage our communities? We understand being the No. 1 sport in the country and certain responsibilities to help make the communities that support that sport better, and we engage in them every day. So I guess if I could sum it up, we do respect and we honor tradition, but we are not married to it if it means impeding progress in the future.

Which brings me to what I spend most of my time every day, which is how we make most of our money in the media landscape. The idea of “we’re not too married to tradition”: I’ll give you a traditional example. This is Mark Twain who said something famous years and years ago about his own death that we have stolen to talk about television. In other words, from our view, reports of television’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

For the NFL, we still think that the most efficient and best way to reach our fans is through television. All 256 of our regular season games, as well as our entire postseason, are distributed free over the air in the markets in which they are played. We are the last sport in the United States who can say that. Even the games on paid television on the NFL Network or ESPN will be broadcast for free on broadcast television in the home and away markets.

Television has helped build the sport. I think in some ways we’ve helped build television, but we’ve worked together for years and it’s been helpful.

Here’s an example. Television is fragmenting a bit. There are lots of ways for competition. Here are the number of viewers in broadcast primetime television since 2005. There has been a decrease of 30%. But for the NFL during the same time period, we’ve grown 30%. So the gap between us and other television programming has increased, which we think is increasingly valuable for us. I don’t know how to help other broadcasters with their primetime, but as far as NFL football goes, television still works very, very well.

But we don’t have our heads in the sand. We understand how the world is changing, and we think about it a lot. This is a quick spaghetti chart, as we like to call it, of technologies that are changing our lives over time, the percent penetration in this country.

A phone clearly changed how we did things. I can’t imagine life without the phone, which was introduced around the turn of the century, but interestingly enough, it took 50 years for the telephone to be somewhat fully distributed in this country.

As time went on, other things happened. Color television took about 20 years to be fully adopted in this country. But something very interesting started to happen around 2000 when you had a whole bunch of technologies come in and the rates of adoption were quite frankly staggering.

It took the internet 13 years for broadband to be close to fully distributed in this country, and it’s taken the Smartphone, when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, right around five years.

The rate of development and adoption of consumer technology in this world today is unprecedented in history. It is unprecedented, and that is changing how people do things. One example is television, which has been so good to us.

In 2008, the television you watched, about 80% to 83% of it was live. When it was on at 8:00, you turned it on, and less than 20% you recorded or tried to find it on the Internet. In just a short amount of time that’s changed substantially. Around 40% of content is on demand, live television is just south of 65%.

That television they’re watching in many different places. In 2003 there were 271 million televisions in this country and about 75 million connected devices.

What is a connected device? It’s anything connected to the Internet wirelessly or wire lined. In just a short amount of time later, this is what’s happened. Television has essentially grown with the rate of population, and it’s exploded in Internet connected devices.

So the picture there is a concert, if they came out for the encore this is what people did. Now in 2013, this is what they did. Mobile devices and interconnected devices are no longer an optional piece of equipment.

And they’re doing different things. This is what the world looked like in 2003. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snap Chat, things if you don’t use them, I promise you your kids do, didn’t exist.

And just 10 years later, this is what they look like. Facebook has 1.2 billion people. An amazing thing, we were just there last week and they shared with us that 650 million of those people check Facebook at least once a day. That is a tremendous amount of people consuming one platform, and they have lots of choices. It’s not just Facebook. It’s not just Twitter. There are lots of different places where if people are interested in any content, entertainment, sports, what have you, they have lots of choices.

So what does it mean for us and how do we think about it? Well, there are two lessons that we take from it. First and foremost, aggregating an audience, while it is increasingly difficult in this day and age, it is increasingly valuable. If you are able to aggregate an audience at one time, media partners, advertisers find it an incredible value. There is nothing that does that better than sports.

Second, that users increasingly have a demand, consumers have a demand to watch what they want, when they want, where they want. And anybody who is in the sport business or content business in general ignores that at their peril. So the way we think about it, we don’t think about it as new media, we don’t think about it as old media, it’s all just media.

The strategies that we employ to exploit these trends work hand in hand. We don’t think it’s a conflict. We think it’s an opportunity. So I’m very visual, so here’s how it works in my brain. The way we measure our business is very simple. Is the pie growing? Is consumption going up among our fans? At the same time, is the economic pie growing for us and our partners? If it’s not, we have a problem. If they’re both going up, we know we’re on the right track. We’re going to make mistakes.  We’re going to experiment. We’re going to be aggressive in some areas and be less aggressive in others. Is the pie growing is very simply how we measure our business.

So aggregating an audience we’ve made our bet. Through 2022 we have renewed our television contracts with some of the people you see here. As I mentioned before, TV is still the most efficient way to deliver the sport of NFL Football in our country. I’ll point out two things here. First thing, we have long‑time partners. These partners have invested in our sport and innovated in our sport. FOX is here today and they’ve done wonderful things with you and we value that.

Second, there is not just one partner, there are numerous partners including our own network, which we own and operate. We believe our partners are our principal marketers of the NFL sport. If you saw what we spent on marketing for the National Football League, you’d probably be surprised how low that number is. The reality is partners like the people here do our marketing for us and they do a great job.

Giving viewers what they want when they want: we think about it in a few buckets. First, I won’t bore you with all the products, they’re listed here. Anything we do in media, we think about it in a few ways. One it has to be 24/7/365. Fans don’t turn off the content that we supply to them. And it’s not just about games, it’s about everything outside of the games. It’s about Tuesday through Sunday in the regular season and it’s about the off‑season.

They also have to be mobile. The most powerful trend I think for the NFL fan in the last few years has been the fact that they’ve been untethered from the couch, and mobile devices allows them to do that whether they’re on the train on the way to work, whether they’re at the supermarket getting some milk that they had to do at 1 o’clock on Sunday, they have their NFL with them. Wherever they go, we want to be.

Second, it has to be increasingly social. The experiences that only used to happen around the couch when you watched NFL football or in the stadium is now taking place virtually and digitally 24 hours a day. We have a partnership with Twitter and others that have been very beneficial to us, but any product we do needs to have a very social element.

Finally, it needs to be personalized. Consumers have a demand to find what they want, when they want, and so all products have to have that characteristic with it.

So I’ll tell you about one perfect example, our newest example of these trends in a product called NFL Now which we just launched this week, which is our most ambitious digital product to date. It is a customized video service for you wherever you are regardless of your device, regardless what you want.

Let me show an example. You’d go on and log into NFL Now and you’d tell us a few things about it. You tell us first you’re a Seattle Seahawks fan. You’d also tell us you really like Peyton Manning so you’re kind of interested in knowing what he’s doing, but also your mom is from Minnesota and she’s always asking you questions about the Vikings, so you want to know something about them. Plus you have a fantasy lineup. If you log on to play Fantasy at, we know your fantasy lineup so we’ll populate content relative to that.

Once you’re on, you’ll receive video whether it’s highlights, whether it is news and information, whether it is NFL Films or library you’ll have on demand. And probably most importantly, you’ll have it wherever you go.

We have announced partners with Microsoft, Yahoo!, Roku, Apple and Google, the best in technology to introduce this, as well as the sponsors and advertisers at P&G, Verizon, Nationwide and McDonald’s. All supporting us with the largest video digital effort we’ve done to date. This is what it looks like.

Again, I know things about you because you’ve told it to me. You also tell me things by what you consume, but also about what you tell me you like through the application. Here’s your news and information, I’ll deliver it to you in an instant. As well as if you don’t want news and information, and you want more of a leaned‑back experience, this is the Netflix of NFL Football. You’ll get the archive of NFL Films, you’ll get the HBO show Hard Knocks, fast editions of Sound FX, which is a show we own on the NFL Network where we mic the players and you can hear what they’re saying. This is all on demand wherever you go. And if it’s on a game day, you’re in luck because it’s the most comprehensive highlights as the games go on that you’ll find anywhere, again customized with what you like, whether it’s fantasy or your key team.

Which brings me back to this: Did anyone notice anything unique about that picture? Well, there are a lot of unique things.

First of all, obviously the building is on fire. That is the science building of this particular prep school in Massachusetts, and it’s clearly on fire. The second thing you’ll notice is nobody seems to care about it. And the fans are relentlessly focused on the action on the field.

And I share this with you for two reasons. The first is our first priority is to create and maintain an exciting, competitive, and safe game of football. If we don’t do that, everything else is window dressing, including the things I just talked about.

I share with you second that if we can keep our focus on healthy, competitive, safe game while embracing innovation and fighting complacency, it is our belief that the game of football will continue to flourish, and our business will continue to flourish despite the external changes in the marketplace that are around us.

With that, I want to thank you for inviting me here. It’s been a pleasure to address you and good luck.

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