Thoughts on Leadership: Lessons from the NFL

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels find me starting the post-Labor Day work week with an early morning Berkshire Hathaway Energy call on Tuesday. After the call, I hopped on a flight to Washington, D.C. to join the RISMedia CEO Exchange and had a fantastic time presenting the opening keynote for RISMedia Founder, President & CEO John Featherston. Today, I returned home and sat down to write this post to you.

It’s an exciting day for football fans around the nation because tonight is the official night of the new season. I’ll be watching the Buffalo Bills play the World Champion L.A. Rams along with millions of other fans.

If you’ve been reading these posts for a while, you know just how much I love the sport. But I don’t just love the players and coaches; I also admire the NFL executives who, time and again, show us that they are open to any ideas – technology, culture, media, even fantasy football – if the league believes that the changes will improve the game.

The NFL rule changes are led by the Competition Committee, which has a consensus-based system in place iso that it canquickly implement some changes while other changes may take years before they go from proposed to enacted on the field. Other changes evolve with time. And even though a lot of the rules the Competition Committee puts forth never make it into the game, every rule is carefully considered.

Today, the Competition Committee makes recommendations after a process of deep deliberation; this nine-member group of team executives and coaches send recommendations to NFL owners who then vote on the changes. For example, from 1974 to 2011, the NFL moved the kickoff line three times in response to trends of the time and player circumstances. In 2009, the NFL changed the rules to prevent three or more defensive players from “forming a wedge to block for the return man on kickoff returns.” This decision came after the Competition Committee members reviewed hours of kickoff film. 

The Competition Committee takes advice and recommendations from coaches and players, taking their feedback and suggestions into consideration as they propose new rules. They also consult with officials and outside medical experts, plus the league’s senior vice president of health and safety policy. The league looks at injuries, statistics, trends, and specific plays to determine what rule changes to propose.

In recent years, NFL rules have placed a much greater emphasis on safety. It makes sense; football is a physicalcontact sport and the last thing the NFL wants is a player who gets seriously hurt while on the field. The fear of a concussion is extremely real. While appearing on a podcast called “Let’s Go!” Tom Brady emphasized how much football has changed: “The game that I played 20 years ago is very different than the game now, in the sense that now it’s more skills competition than it is physical football.”

Beyond the Competition Committee, the NFL has also adapted to changing media trends. According to NFL Chief Media and Business Officer Brian Rolapp, there are about 184 million NFL fans today. With such a large audience, it makes sense to give the people what they want – more football! In 2021, the NFL added a 17th regular-season game, which followed an announcement that there would be an extra playoff team to each conference to create two additional wild-card games. The NFL added more ways to watch, including ESPN’s Manningcast, a deal with Amazon Prime Video for Thursday Night Football to keep pace with the exponential growth of streaming, and Spanish-language broadcasts. As a fun stat, the 2021 TikTok Tailgate was watched more than 32 million times and NFL content on TikTok was watched more than 125 million times during Super Bowl week.

Fantasy football is another example of the NFL’s evolution. ESPN estimates about 40 million people play fantasy football in the U.S. But when fantasy football first emerged, the NFL wasn’t fully onboard. Then, in 1999 Chris Russo became the NFL’s VP of New Media and was determined to learn about the emerging trend. Russo told officials they should incorporate fantasy into their strategy based on research that showed fantasy players watched more football than non-fantasy players. Then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was convinced and suddenly, fantasy was seen as a vehicle for strengthening fan engagement. The NFL started talking about fantasy during game broadcasts, allowed players to promote fantasy football and in 2009, launched the RedZone channel for in-depth fantasy football insights. In 2015, the league was persuading teams to show RedZone highlights at the stadiums during breaks. Fantasy was officially not just an add-on to the game; it was part of the culture of football.

So, what’s the message? As President John F. Kennedy once said, “Change is the law of life. And those who only look to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.”  Throughout history, NFL executives have been custodians of the game and haven’t just protected its integrity but also changed the rules so that the games are fairer, safer, more inclusive, and more entertaining for everyone.

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