Football season is here again. The NFL is America’s most popular and profitable sport, arguably having replaced baseball as America’s true “national pastime.” With over $4 billion per year in TV revenue (in addition to ticket sales and merchandise), the NFL is the richest brand in American sports. But just because the NFL is on top today doesn’t mean it will stay that way forever. One of the biggest risks facing the NFL is the new research about concussions and brain injuries in football, with many former players now suing the league for negligence.

What are some ideas that small business owners can learn from the success (and risks) of the NFL?

Find your ideal medium. For many years, NFL football wasn’t nearly as popular as college football. But the NFL took off in popularity after World War II with the rise of television. NFL football is the ideal TV sport because it is broken up into many separate plays and the action translates well to the TV screen, where viewers can see the full complexity of the game up close. Even though your small business is unlikely to ever become as big of a draw as NFL football, now that we have social media, every small business has an opportunity to present itself to audiences in the best possible format. What do you do that could be best conveyed via YouTube video, podcast, or photos on Pinterest? How can you make your small business look more beautiful, more compelling, and more engaging with your customers and audiences? With social media, business owners have the ability to create their own content and tell their own story in a way that is affordable, targeted and relevant to the audience.

  • Cultivate your fan base. The NFL has been successful at building interest and fan bases centered on specific NFL teams, rather than having the league’s marketing tied to individual players (like the NBA – after Michael Jordan retired, the NBA lost a lot of viewers because it had become overly identified with one specific player). NFL fans are big spenders on team merchandise, helping to promote their favorite brand’s product. As we discussed in our marketing lessons from Steve Jobs, the best marketing happens when you market to your biggest fans first. Who are your business’s biggest fans? If your business sold your own merchandise equivalent of “team jerseys” and “Terrible Towels” (like the Pittsburgh Steelers), which of your customers would buy your merchandise? Find ways to reward your best customers. Can you give discounts for repeat purchases? Can you start a loyalty program, or give customers an incentive to tell their friends about your business? Can you offer your biggest customers special experiences (“behind the scenes” access to your business, or special receptions and parties)? Instead of spending a lot of money on advertising, your marketing dollars might give the biggest return if you invest in your biggest fans, and let them spread the word for you.
  • Manage your risks. Even though the NFL is wildly successful at the moment, there is no guarantee that it will stay on top of the American sports scene forever. Faced with new evidence about the effects of football on the long-term health of the players, the NFL is taking action to improve player safety (or is at least trying to create the perception of improving player safety) and is considering big changes in the rules of the game to limit the risk of concussions and brain diseases that have affected some retired players. What is the biggest risk facing your business, however unlikely it might seem? Are you prepared to respond to changes in the market and “change the rules” of your own business?

No matter what industry you’re in, we can all learn something from the NFL, one of the most successful brands in America. Is your business ready to build a winning team and run up the score on the competition?