Super Bowl Sunday. Super Meh Sunday.

Super Bowl Sunday captured my imagination almost as soon as I arrived in the US nearly 14 years ago. I was drawn in by the collective national excitement uniting people with premier sportsmanship, A-list musical performances and a feast of high-quality advertising.

This year the odds were in my favor for a top viewing experience. I was an Insights professional ready to take in the ads, a Maroon 5 fan excited for the halftime show, an Angeleno rooting for her home team, and a Fantasy league finalist invested in this year’s season. This was going to be good.

Yet, at best the day was ‘meh’. My wings were considerably spicier than the gameplay resulting in the lowest scoring Super Bowl in history, the ads were, for the most part, unremarkable, as was the halftime show, which garnered more conversation around Adam Levine’s bare chest than the actual performance.

Preliminary Nielsen results indicate that the audience declined year-on-year by nearly 5%. Granted, this still means that a whopping 98.2 million people watched the game and it remains the largest live viewing event by a substantial margin. However, also consider that viewership peaked four years ago with 114.4 million in 2015.

It’s no secret that the NFL is a behemoth brand with a lot of cachet and a lot of challenges. Their continual avoidance of multiple issues on and off the field is taking its toll. On-field, there are issues around questionable referee calls (just ask the Saints), performance-enhancing drugs, and long-time health concerns with concussions. Off-field, it’s been two seasons since Colin Kaepernick took the knee (he remains unsigned), and all too frequently we hear of players embroiled in some form of violence. And if these aren’t challenging enough, the 99-year-old NFL, like every other brand, is grappling with finding its way in the experience economy and how to drive its fan experience forward.

The NFL needs to appeal to a new generation and (gasp) even women to keep the brand healthy. (Please, limit the pink jerseys.) They need to adapt to modern times with a modern, digital (non-cable) audience. Unquestionably innovative viewing experiences fueled by technology will play a role in their future longevity. However, honing in on their brand story and communicating what they stand for will be key. Today all brands need their greater purpose, their story that connects them to their audience in a meaningful way. This has its risks, you can never please everyone. But as the NFL is finding out, playing safe is risky too.

Perhaps their ‘100-Year Game’ ad, that aired around half time and ranked 1st in the USA Today’s Ad Meter, offers some clues to their century season. The ad portrayed the NFL at its best – an uplifting, light take on elite players simply having fun with the ball. That’s what the sport is all about – passion for the game. Notably, the ad also featured a few females linked to the sport including Sam Gordon, a 15-year-old footballer who won the league’s inaugural Game Changer award. There was also an interesting nod to streaming culture with the inclusion of Ninja, aka Tyler Blevins, the immensely popular Fornite player.

Certainly, it will take a lot more than a winning ad to get the NFL back on track. My advice is that they need to listen to their players and their entire fanbase to really understand the role the brand – not just the game – plays in people’s lives. Only then can they evolve their brand story, be viewed as authentic, and connect their stories with their fans’ stories.

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