The NFL dominates the U.S. sports industry and is one of the most valuable sports organizations in the world. America’s love for the game feeds this power, but over the past six years, changes in the NFL’s marketing strategy have propelled success. An organization that was once fueled by older generations became an industry for everyone through social media and the NFL’s “helmets off” approach.
Looking back at early versions of Madden NFL, a football player always graced the cover wearing his shiny helmet and famous uniform. They were often shadowed, with dark backgrounds, and centered around the NFL logo. In 2018, the NFL hired Tim Ellis as their new Chief Marketing Officer, and up until that point, most of the NFL advertising and partnerships were marketed just like that Madden NFL cover. When Tim Ellis stepped in, he brought the NFL’s marketing strategy personality, humor, and emotion. Fast forward to Madden NFL 18 - the cover looks a little different. Tom Brady is holding his helmet staring intently. The keyword here: holding. Madden NFL 18 was the first of the series where the player on the cover was not wearing their helmet. Tim Ellis calls this the “helmets off” approach - a step towards reaching a younger fan base.
At the time of his entrance into the role, the NFL audience was dominated by people ages 35+. Ellis’ goal was to tap into and capture the younger audience. The players and faces of the NFL were necessary for this goal, showcasing personalities in a multitude of ways in an effort to grow the NFL community. Players were tasked with creating behind-the-scenes videos of game days, locker room activities, or anything else they could think of. The relaxed, personal vibe of these videos drew people in. Players started earning followings for their humor, personality, and hobbies - ultimately leading to more authentic partnership opportunities. The now-retired Rob Gronkowski is the gold example of how the “helmets off” approach benefits players. Gronkowski’s fan base soared once fans got to know the man under the helmet. With a now booming presence on TikTok and Instagram, he became a favorite of the younger generation and still exists as a face of football regardless of his retirement, appearing in commercials for Dunkin’, ESPN, FootLocker, and more. The “helmets off” approach allows players to create a personal brand that will last beyond the NFL.
It was clear that the changes Ellis made were working, but during and after the pandemic, his strategy brought the NFL’s numbers higher than ever. Since the year 2000, revenues have been on a steady incline with the exception of 2020. Despite a dramatic decrease of $3 billion in revenue to a yearly total of $12 billion due to the global pandemic, the “helmet’s off” approach and social media were key in the incredible climb to $17 billion in revenue in 2021. The NFL marketing and social media teams took this time to hone in on their “helmets off” approach and let the world see life inside of the NFL. The public was craving personal relationships and interactions and the NFL provided this experience across all platforms. This achieved Ellis’ goal of expanding, especially to a younger audience. A 2021 stat showed that of Snapchat Highlight viewers alone, 70% were aged 24 years or younger which was 38% more than the year prior. They also reached a larger audience on Instagram for Kickoff Sunday 2021 beating 2020 by 91%.
Tim Ellis and his introduction of the “helmet’s off” approach proved highly successful. At the end of 2022, the NFL saw a total revenue of $18 billion placing the organization $8 billion ahead of the MLB. If other sports organizations want to continue to grow as rapidly, and continuously, they should take their helmets off and pay attention to the playbook Tim Ellis is writing.