Colin O'Brien
Colin O'Brien is a Sports Consumer Insights Analyst at Mintel. Utilizing his lifelong passion and knowledge of the industry, he is responsible for researching and writing reports on the world of sports in the US.

Football is the number one sport in America and is expected to maintain this position during the 2020-2021 season. The NFL dominates television ratings each year and generates billions in ad revenue as a result. Despite teams only playing one game per week, many fans remain highly engaged with the sport throughout the week – creating ample opportunities for brands to connect with consumers.

As with many industries, COVID-19 has severely impacted the 2020-2021 season. With several college football seasons canceled or postponed, the NFL remains hopeful it can play the upcoming season, even if that means without fans.

Football is the number one sport in the US, and it’s not close

According to Mintel research on football in America, more than two-thirds of consumers follow football, with more than three in five following the NFL. Of those fans, two-thirds self-characterize as passionate fans.

The NFL domination by the numbers:

  • 16.5 million: average TV viewership for an NFL game
  • $4.48 billion: total advertising spend during the NFL regular season
  • 78: Number of NFL broadcasts in the top 100 most-watched broadcasts during 2019

Football is live television’s greatest resource, as it consistently produces a top vehicle to reach consumers on TV. Furthermore, these consumers are actively engaged with the content, meaning that advertisements and marketing efforts are often met with attentive consumers.

Impact of COVID-19 on Football in America

Football was in its offseason during the sports shutdown at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak and didn’t face the same immediate crisis as those sports that were in season. However, the ongoing pandemic has still had a profound impact on the sport. Several college football conferences, including the Big Ten and Pac 12, have canceled or postponed their upcoming seasons. For both the NFL and the remaining college conferences, games will either be played without fans in attendance or at significantly reduced capacities. Football plans to carry on, with an abundance of new safety protocols in place, but only time will tell what further impacts COVID-19 will have on the sport.

Ancillary football games offer more ways to reach consumers

Fantasy football, sports betting, and video games are all types of ancillary games tied to football that help increase interest and engagement in the sport, especially among younger and male fans. These competitions create new opportunities for brands to reach consumers, as well as driving interest in following games. These ancillary games are all growing in consumer interest, which has led to increased focus from media as well. Fantasy football and sports betting television shows, podcasts, and dedicated websites are becoming increasingly sought out by fans, presenting opportunities for brands to reach and engage with consumers. The sports shutdown resulted in eSports being thrust into the mainstream, exposing many consumers to the industry for the first time. The crossover between gaming and sports, particularly football, will continue to grow and present more brand integration opportunities moving forward.

Football audibles to virtual experiences

Source: Twitter – Miami Dolphins

At the professional and collegiate level, football teams are finding ways to engage with their fans virtually.

As the NFL Draft was forced to be held virtually for the first time, teams adjusted to make sure they were still able to engage with their fans during the event. The Miami Dolphins were the first to announce a virtual draft party for their fans to attend, with Bud Light Seltzer as the presenting sponsor. The party had interviews with draft picks, Q&As with current players and Bud Light Seltzer-sponsored draft stories from current and former players on their memories of being drafted. Roughly two-thirds of NFL teams hosted a virtual draft party that featured draft coverage and interactive content for fans, each with a brand sponsor ranging from Miller Lite to Levi’s to 7-Eleven.

At the college level, Penn State hosted a virtual tailgate on the day of its initially scheduled spring game and encouraged fans to host their own tailgates and interact with PSU content on digital channels. Tailgating is a widely popular event for football – more than half of fans like to
tailgate when attending games, and on college campuses, many fans tailgate without even entering the stadium on game day. It provides fans with a chance to add excitement to the experience of the game, as well as for brands to interact and engage with fans. PSU’s virtual tailgate garnered 8,000+ virtual tailgaters and provided a social reach of 3 million and 200K+ engagement.

What we think

While the football season may be anything but normal this year, what will be normal is the massive attention paid by both consumers and brands to the sport. Football will once again provide one of the top vehicles for brands to reach and engage with fans throughout the entire season. While there may be more sports competition on television than normal, the NFL will nonetheless reign supreme across the industry. For many consumers across the country, they will soon kick off their Sundays with advertisements and touchdowns.

For a comprehensive look at consumer behavior and opportunities in the football industry, please check out Mintel’s “Football in America” report.