The NFL realises humans are story-driven creatures and it uses these features to cultivate a sport-specific culture and build its community
James Fazackerley
James Fazackerley is a Content and Digital Specialist for REDTORCH. REDTORCH is an independent digital communications agency that turns data into insight to engage, grow and commercialise international sports audiences.
NFL’s Game Pass: the way forward
28th September 2017, 09:45

The NFL is back. For many Europeans, this might not mean very much. We may occasionally glance upwards for the impressive front flip over a cornerback, or for the bone-crunching tackle shared around the group chat, but, apart from the obvious moments, the NFL is still behind most major sports in the queue for our attention.

This may be set to change with the re-launch of Game Pass

NFL’s OTT platform has been given a makeover for its European audience, and it’s far from superficial. The expanding global franchise has taken what I consider to be the three pillars of OTT – data, technology, and narrative – and seamlessly integrated them into its new build.

How has the NFL done this?

They’ve listened to the data

My first pillar of OTT (data) initially informs the broad strategic decisions that make or break a platform. What new features to invest in? How many product packages to offer audiences?

“We’ve listened to our 2016 subscribers,” the NFL states on its UK-dedicated website. “We’re adding new functionality to make NFL’s Game Pass better than ever in 2017.”

The NFL professes to have asked its 2016 subscribers what could be improved about Game Pass. Never underestimate the power of direct-to-consumer market research. Products for the fans should be driven by the fans; decisions in this space should never be made in isolation.

On top of fresh customer data, something I bet really grabbed the NFL’s attention was its declining TV audience. It’s no coincidence the massive investment in OTT has come at a time when traditional viewership declined by more than 10 per cent in the first few months of last year’s NFL campaign. Forbes concluded the League lost over 1 million viewers per game.

Like it or loathe it, the culture of sports consumption has changed.

The NFL is dealing specifically with this issue by introducing ‘Game in 40’ – an improved feature that offers a downloadable, condensed version of the game, bringing fans only the best of the action. If you’re like me and sigh at the length of NFL games when live action amounts to a measly 11 minutes, this feature might well entice you to give the sport another look. It at least seems a viable replacement for your morning commute time-filler.

The NFL has listened, and is listening. General data trends and direct customer research have rightly informed top-level decisions, and real-time data from user habits will inform a continuous process of platform refinement that ensures Game Pass will be optimised for users.

They’ve embraced new technology 

Technology in this space is moving fast, and those with the deepest pockets are going to be able to make the most of my second OTT pillar: technology.

What’s impressive about Game Pass is how the NFL has integrated new technology into its overall brand message. Each piece of the puzzle serves a purpose, be it a practical one or an emotional one.

One practical improvement of Game Pass is the accommodation of digital streaming devices such as Chromecast, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire. In 2015, 42 million of these devices were sold worldwide, and sales don’t appear to be slowing down, according to the Strategy Analytics Connected Home Devices report.

With OTT looking set to eventually replace traditional TV, the inclusion of these devices was a necessity for the platform.

The high-definition stream on Game Pass will be accompanied by real-time game data, greatly enhancing the user experience and encouraging online chatter – a crucial aspect of maintaining any OTT ecosystem. The recent decision to insert a tracking chip into the game ball shows the NFL is serious about using data for commercial purposes too.

To give users greater control over their viewing habits, each stream has also been given a live interactive timeline, enabling fans to re-watch key plays of a game both live and on demand. This feature, along with ‘Game in 40’, shows the NFL is responding in the right way to changing consumer habits.

They’re telling their narrative

No sport survives without narrative. The NFL has made sure the right features have been built into Game Pass to help tell its story. Narrative is the beating heart of a sport, and OTT platforms must allow users on-demand access to it if they want to hold long-term attention.

Game Pass offers users the 24/7 home of the NFL – the NFL Network – and NFL RedZone, which brings fans live look-ins to all the big moments. The constant stream of insight is compounded by the thought-provoking ‘Coaches Play’ feature, which uses all 22 camera angles so users can watch a game from a coach’s perspective. Game Pass certainly goes some way to satisfying the insatiable hunger for game knowledge demonstrated by the NFL’s hard-core fans.

However, a narrative isn’t written solely with information. Another addition to the platform, one which I’m particularly enamoured with, is the hundreds of hours of on-demand shows, series and specials, including the award-winning ‘A Football Life’ and ‘Hard Knocks’. These extras are extremely powerful in developing an engaging narrative, extras sometimes overlooked by sports rights holders. If you’re a sport with a substantial amount of supplementary media – use it!

The NFL realises humans are story-driven creatures and it uses these features to cultivate a sport-specific culture and build its community. In an age where platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime reign supreme, integrating the use of on-demand media that isn’t simply live events is a clever way to entice new and part-time fans.

Breaking down barriers

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m impressed with Game Pass. The NFL has successfully created an OTT platform that transcends two things all commercially-driven sports attempt to conquer: borders and time zones.

“Technology is there now to move beyond those traditional constraints,” says Sam Jones, CEO of OverTier. The NFL has taken full advantage of this. A strategy of intensified user personalisation is the logical next step for Game Pass – appealing to those users with a clearer idea of what they want from the platform, and how they want it to look. At present, a solid foundation has been built with Game Pass that will aid the franchise’s expansion into Europe and beyond.

The full package is currently available for an annual subscription fee of £139.99, or seven-day access for £14.99. Opting for the more cost-effective annual subscription, this works out as £2.69 a week. For all that’s on offer, I think the NFL has nailed the pricing too.

Major advances in technology notwithstanding, it’s hard to see how sports OTT platforms can be improved from here.