The NFL is on the rebound after a few years of controversy. Now, Maryann Turcke has a plan to use big data to win over a new generation of fans

Maryann Turcke is chief operating officer of the National Football League and is exploring how the NFL uses big data and digital marketing to help touch a new generation of fans.
The Globe and Mail
The most powerful Canadian in professional sports is a former civil engineer from Kingston who once built highways for Ontarios Ministry of Transportation.
Today, Maryann Turcke is chief operating officer of the National Football League and has an unusual perspective on Sundays Super Bowl in Miami. For her, its not just about the game on the field. Its also about how the league is using big data and digital marketing to help touch a new generation of fans.
Its a real science, Ms. Turcke says during a phone interview a week before the big game. And we have the best people here engaging in that science.
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For the NFL, the high-tech, increasingly quantitative craft of cultivating audiences has never mattered more. The league has suffered some stinging reversals in recent years.
Back in 2016 and 2017, player protests during the U.S. national anthem threatened to turn pro football into a political quagmire. Meanwhile, mounting evidence of the brain damage suffered by some former players raised doubts about the long-term viability of the game. Television ratings faded to their lowest point in a decade in 2017, as critics speculated about whether NFL football would lose its traditional position atop the Nielsen charts.
Now, those worries are receding into the background. Thanks to an influx of exciting new players and some enlightened crisis management, as well as the NFLs growing skill in using big data to connect with its audience in new ways, the league is enjoying a notable upswing.
And Ms. Turcke, who moved to Los Angeles in early 2017 to run the NFLs cable channel, and then to to her current job at league headquarters in New York a year later, has been at the centre of the action during the turnaround.
This past season, NFL games accounted for 47 of the 50 most-watched shows on U.S. television, including the entire top 10. The leagues viewership is blooming again even as the rest of the traditional broadcasting world is shrivelling. Ad Age, an industry publication, estimates that NFL ratings climbed 5 per cent in 2019, while broadcast television lost about 7 per cent of its viewers.
If history is any guide, this weekends Super Bowl will be by far the most watched television event of the year in North America. It is expected to draw north of 100 million viewers, almost a third of the entire U.S. population.
A statue of NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino stands outside Hard Rock Stadium Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, in Miami Gardens, Fla., in preparation for the NFL Super Bowl 54 football game.
David J. Phillip/The Associated Press
Those are spectacular numbers given the multitudes of households that are cutting the cord and fleeing broadcast TV for cheaper streaming services and online content. In the face of such competition, the NFL stands alone as the only broadcast property that remains capable of reliably delivering a huge audience not just for the Super Bowl, but on every weekend of the fall.
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And the league can do even better, Ms. Turcke asserts. The challenge, she says, is finding ways to move people up what she calls the avidity scale.
That means converting audiences from occasional spectators to impassioned fans who consume NFL content and paraphernalia in multiple ways. From the leagues perspective, the ideal fan is no longer just a guy who sprawls on the sofa Sunday afternoons, watching the game. Ideally, he or, increasingly, she – also participates in online fantasy football, follows the leagues social-media content and buys its team-branded products. He or she also engages in sports betting in the growing number of states where it is legal.
Turning casual fans into avid fans requires a compelling product on the field. It also demands expertise in big data and number crunching.
To take one example, the leagues analytics department divides fans into 10 clusters, each with its own characteristics. The NFLs in-house experts strive to understand what forces drive a fan from one cluster to another, propelling them up or down the avidity scale. For instance, they can predict how serving up messages on social media in August around playing fantasy football can affect the probability of fans in a certain cluster moving to a higher level of engagement.
Ms. Turcke says the league is in a war for young fans. In an age when entertainment options abound, the NFL needs to be at the top of its game when it comes to using data, social media and pop-culture items to keep the enthusiasm level among twenty-somethings and other fans at a fever pitch. Its a science, she repeats. A science of how to find fans and how to engage them.
The scientific aspect comes naturally to Ms. Turcke. She graduated in civil engineering from Queens University in 1988 and went to work for Ontarios Ministry of Transportation as a highway engineer, before shifting gears and completing an MBA, also at Queens, in 1997. That was followed by a stint in technology consulting, and then an offer to join Bell Media as executive vice-president, field operations, in 2008.
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At Bell Media, Ms. Turcke helped drive a new focus on customer service and was key to rolling out Bells Fibe TV and internet services. She also served on the board of directors of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, giving her a window on the intersection of sports and mass media.
When she became president of Bell Media in 2014, her focus on sports intensified as she looked for properties that could counteract the cord-cutting trend. We worked hard at Bell Media to make it the home of the NFL in Canada, she recalls. We became one loud voice to promote football across the country.
The NFL took note. It soon came calling with an enticing offer the chance to run NFL Network. The leagues cable channel delivers a non-stop diet of football games, football news and football-related entertainment to about 50 million households.
In her new job, the level of passion Ms. Turcke saw all around her put her own enthusiasm in perspective. Back in Canada, she had enjoyed watching the games with her husband and kids on Sunday afternoons. She regarded herself as a fan.
In the United States, it was, wow, she recalls with a chuckle. I suddenly realized there were people who cared about it a hundred million times more than I did.
But her co-workers intensity also made her realize how easy it is to lose sight of the casual fan. If you sit around a table all the time with a bunch of people who are absolute fanatical football people, they dont think critically about whether we are working hard enough to get that next fan, to get the person who might watch soccer instead of football.
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Since being promoted to chief operating officer in 2018 and moving to New York, she has searched for new ways to reach out to those less-than-fanatical fans. Consider women, for instance. Female fans watch the game in large numbers. By and large, however, they dont display the same level of ferocious enthusiasm as their male counterparts. For Ms. Turcke and for the NFLs data crunchers, that points to potential opportunity.
Forty-seven per cent of our fans are female, while only 38 per cent of our avid fans are female, Ms. Turcke says. Offering products and content tailored to female fans could drive more of them up the avidity scale.
Thats why the leagues content creators are putting a new emphasis on so-called helmets off videos, delivered via social media to both football and non-football audiences. In these segments, out-of-uniform players talk about families, communities, exercise regimens and nutrition.
A typical segment features top draft choices reading letters from their mothers about how proud they were when their sons got drafted. Its an ingenious way of turning anonymous, helmeted athletes into human beings who can connect with fans of both sexes.
The hope, of course, is that people who enjoy these segments and like the players will tune in to games to see how their new friends are performing on the field. Our chief marketing officer likes to use the term mass intimacy, Ms. Turcke says. Its about how you make individuals feel a personal connection, a one-on-one link, even if the sport is being watched by 100 million people.
The leagues challenge is that building that sense of mass intimacy also means confronting controversial issues. Consider, for instance, the firestorm ignited by then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernicks decision in 2016 to protest racial oppression by kneeling during pregame anthems.
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His gesture was soon copied by scores of other African-American players. The protest divided the league and its fans along political lines. Many people interpreted the kneeling as a sign of disrespect for the flag a slap in the face for a league that prides itself on its patriotism. Others saw it as an act of legitimate self-expression targeting a real social problem.
The league itself seemed unsure, finally deciding in May, 2018, that players could no longer kneel during the anthem without leaving themselves open to punishment. However, it also permitted athletes to stay in the locker room while the anthem was being performed.
Ultimately, instead of meting out suspensions or fines, the league signed a US$90-million social justice partnership with the Players Coalition, a group founded by NFL players focused on reducing racial inequality.
The biggest lesson from any controversy like that is to learn how to listen, Ms. Turcke says. We did a lot of listening and we learned a lot as an organization.
San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif. on Oct. 2, 2016.
The Associated Press
This Sunday, during the Super Bowl, the league plans to air a 30-second ad featuring retired wide receiver Anquan Boldin re-enacting the 2015 shooting death of his cousin by a plain-clothes police officer. Its a moving spot that promotes the leagues Inspire Change initiative, a program created to help athletes address social issues in their home communities.
The measured but impassioned tone of the ad has won applause from observers such as Helio Fred Garcia, president of Logos Consulting Group, who teaches crisis communications at New York University. This is far more artfully done than I would have expected from the NFL, Mr. Garcia told CNN. The NFL has not been very adept at dealing with controversies.
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Ms. Turcke credits her boss, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, with laying the groundwork for the leagues new approach. He sat down with players, police forces and members of communities afflicted with violence to explore ways the league could help address racial issues. The key, Ms. Turcke says, was to have the humility to say, yep, weve got to do something, and were going to get behind [this issue] because its the right thing to do for the country.”
What is not so clear is whether a similar approach can work with the leagues other big challenge the toll that football appears to take on the brains of many former players. Autopsies of former NFL players show a high incidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a form of brain damage associated with repeated blows to the head and concussions.
People afflicted with CTE develop symptoms ranging from confusion and depression to violent behaviour and dementia, according the CTE Center at Boston University. Some commit suicide.
In response to CTE concerns, the NFL has revised its rules to reduce hits to the head. It stations medical personnel on the sidelines of each game and removes players from the game if they show signs of concussion. In recent years, it has promised to donate US$100-million to medical and neuroscience research on the issue, as well as devote another US$100-million to engineering advancements and medical research aimed at increasing the safety of the game.
Ms. Turcke points to the recent tightening of rules around helmet-to-helmet contact and quarterback safety as examples of the NFLs concern. Were making the game better, and a lot of time and energy are being invested with various scientific experts across the country on engineering better helmets, better cleats, better turf to improve safety, she says.
Maybe so. However, the relative quiet around the issue in recent months may simply be a reflection of fans fatigue with an issue that threatens their favourite sport. Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., says CTE remains a huge problem for the NFL and other levels of football, but as long as the optics are put out there to the fandom that, look, we care and we are making progress, fans are willing to look the other way. A vast majority of fans just love the game too much.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes celebrates as he comes off the field after an NFL divisional playoff football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020, in Kansas City, Mo.
The Associated Press
The question for the league is where that love affair with its fans will go next. The NFL is already a US$15-billion-a-year business, according to John Vrooman, a sports economist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. How can a league that already dominates the airwaves grow even bigger?
Outsiders point to several possibilities. One strategy would involve increasing the length of the regular season, most likely to 17 games from the current 16. Another would be to grow internationally, perhaps by putting a team in London, where a rotating cast of NFL teams already play several games a year. Yet another would be for more teams to construct new stadiums with revenue-gushing features such as luxury boxes, pro shops and entertainment centres.
Ms. Turcke doesnt dismiss any of those ideas out of hand. However, she sounds more excited about the potential of less-dramatic moves, such as developing ways to enhance the second screen experience for fans. That may mean creating ways for them to use their phone or laptop to monitor sophisticated statistics about the game theyre watching on their main TV screen.
It could also mean allowing fans to play fantasy football or other football-related games against each other in real time.
Legalized sports betting also presents opportunities. Fifteen U.S. states now regulate it and it is likely to keep on spreading in years ahead. That could open up new revenues for the league. However, gambling also puts increased pressure on the NFL to police the integrity of its games something the league has emphasized with increased energy in recent years. Ground zero for the product is knowing the game is fair, Ms. Turcke says.
Shifts in how games are telecast open up other new sources of revenue. Speculation has been rife in recent years that a major tech company may decide to make a bold, lavish bid for NFL content as a way to attract millions of new users to a streaming service. Amazon.com Inc. has already dipped its toes in the water. It streams Thursday night games on its Prime Video service in simulcasts with Fox TV.
Observers such as Geetha Ranganathan, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, argue the spectre of a much larger streaming deal with Amazon or another player could force traditional broadcasters to pay through the nose when the current roster of multiyear TV deals come up for renegotiation in 2022. Ms. Ranganathan estimates the rights fees paid by networks for broadcasting games could soar as much as 75 per cent from the current US$5.7-billion a year to as much as US$10-billion a year.
Ms. Turcke declines to speculate about those upcoming negotiations but she does offer a fierce defence of the traditional broadcasting model. There have been lots of people who have been saying the broadcast model will be upended for a lot of years, and it continues to prevail, she says. Its an evolution of sorts I dont think the broadcast model is going to be upended.
For all the buzz around streaming, digital viewership of NFL games is still only 3 to 4 per cent of the total, Ms. Turcke estimates. Moreover, she describes broadcasters as essential partners in building and promoting the game: Its really a team effort among the league, the clubs, the players and the broadcasters to make this sport popular, she declares.
And who can argue with the results? With a hundred million people looking forward to tuning in to Sundays game, the league and its Canadian COO are clearly on a winning streak.
Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell during a news conference about the strike by NFL players, in Cleveland, Ohio on Sept. 21, 1982.
Mark Duncan/AP
The late Art Modell, one-time owner of the Cleveland Browns, explained the success of the National Football League in characteristically blunt terms. It was, he said, a league run by a bunch of fat-cat Republicans who vote socialist on football.
His description is still accurate. The NFLs last bout of true competition came in the early 1960s, when it faced a challenge from the upstart American Football League. Bidding wars between the two leagues sent player salaries soaring.
The solution was simple: In 1966, the rival leagues agreed to merge. With one unified NFL draft, teams no longer faced competition for player talent. A star athlete had to sign with the team that drafted him, with no opportunity to play one league off against its rival.
Since then, it has been largely onward and upward for the great football collective (if not always for players). Leaguewide bargaining for television rights ensures the surging revenue from national broadcasting deals is distributed equally among all 32 teams. Gate receipts get divided, too, with 60 per cent going to the home team and the rest to visiting squads.
Meanwhile, a collective bargaining agreement with the players union imposes salary caps on teams, restraining competition for on-field talent.
The result, according to Vanderbilt University economist John Vrooman, is a fully automatic, perfectly diversified, stone-cold money machine. He describes the NFL as the most valuable sports league in the world, with annual revenues of US$15-billion. By his calculations, a typical NFL franchise has expanded in value by more than 11 per cent a year since 1990, double the increase in the Standard & Poors 500 stock index.
So long as the leagues TV ratings remain strong, more gains appear inevitable. Back in 2010, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell set an ambitious target for the league US$25-billion in total revenue by 2027.
This seems within reach. The leagues existing deals with broadcasters expire in 2022. The NFL should be able to extract as much as 80 per cent more in the next round of contracts, according to a recent report from analysts at MoffettNathanson LLC, an investment research firm in New York.
At the high end, that would boost the leagues annual take from national broadcast rights alone to more than US$10-billion. Ticket sales, local broadcast deals, streaming agreements, merchandise sales, licensing agreements and other sources of revenue should be able to contribute at least as much, if not more, to the leagues coffers. Not a bad haul for a bunch of socialists.
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