Three years in as the National Football League's top marketer, Dawn Hudson's job hasn't gotten any easier. The league remains a TV ratings behemoth and the nation's most popular spectator sport. But plenty of threats loom, including rising competition from sports like soccer and signs that fewer kids are playing football as concerns grow about concussion risks.
The league also faces the delicate task of handling players protesting the national anthem to bring attention to racial injustice and discrimination in the U.S. Meanwhile, after regular season ratings declined last year, the league has implemented changes such as cutting the number of commercial breaks to four per quarter from five.
While Hudson deals with those issues behind the scenes, the NFL is trying to put its best foot forward with a new campaign called "Random Acts of Kickoff" that seeks to build hype in advance of the Sept. 7 season opener. The campaign, which was handled in-house, includes a series of fan experiences created by all 32 teams, such as surprise player and celebrity appearances, ticket giveaways and events in support of community organizations (see video below).
"Our whole advertising strategy it's to really focus on the game on the field and the things that people really love about the game," Hudson says.
Hudson, a former PepsiCo and ad agency executive who was named the league's chief marketing officer n 2014, tackled some of the league's off-the field challenges in a recent interview. Below, a lightly edited transcript.
The national anthem protest by NFL players appears to be growing. On Monday, a dozen Cleveland Brown players participated and white players have joined the movement. As the league's top marketer, what is your take on this? What does this do to the NFL's image, good or bad?
One of the reasons I took this job is the challenge and the awesomeness of marketing a sport to 70% of Americans. We have to do everything we can to make sure that we fulfill what that broad fan base is looking for, and not inadvertently become politicized one side or another.
By all means we believe in the ability for individuals to have freedom of speech. We believe in the ability for you to have a point of view on anything you want and we believe that our fans should be all types and we should not discriminate between our fans. [The NFL's] fan base watches what our players do. They watch what our announcers do. They are not at the stadiums, they are watching what's going on in the media. It's a long winded way of saying I respect what [the players] are doing. I [also] respect those that are upset about it. ... I have to make sure we are concentrating on the game on the field, the action that [the fans] love, the players they love in the field, telling them as much as we can about that … and doing it in a way that is not tone deaf that doesn't acknowledge that there are difficulties.
The NFL, which has been criticized as the "no fun league," has relaxed rules on touchdown celebrations. Has the league made the decision to let players showcase their individual personalities more?
We've tried to listen to the fans. And we've tried to give them more of what they want. And they did very clearly tell us that they like the pace of the game. They don't mind commercials, but where those commercials happen can be better. They love the drama around a call or the officiating, but if we could do it a little faster that would be great. They love in a big moment seeing players celebrate. They love the emotion.
How exactly is the NFL listening to fans?
We have instituted what we call the voice of the fans. So we do have panels of fans we speak to regularly and we have large enough samples so we get the different age groups and the different life stages of fans. And we started more sessions with our players that we are looking on building, too.
The Sports and Fitness Industry Association's latest report on sports participation shows a five-year average annual decline of 3.1% for tackle football. With concerns about concussions rising, are you worried that fewer kids are playing football? And could this eventually hurt the NFL?
I think the ability to participate in a sport is one way you become a fan of the sport. And I'd hate to have that go away. And there is a lot of effort in providing support to make the tackle programs as good as they can be -- yes, as safe as they can be -- but with athletic training just better. And then flag football and other things so you can participate in football whatever level and whatever degree of impact you want.
But from a fan standpoint, a small percentage of my fans are actually going to be created by playing the sport. So while I want as many people as possible to be able to play, even if it's just in their backyard on Thanksgiving, I've got to make sure I'm reaching people with knowledge about the sport beyond just playing.
Soccer has really come on strong. Is this a threat to football?
You do have a cultural thing going on, I think driven by the digital age, which is that no longer do we have generations that all have to wear the same gene. Every generation wants to have its own thing. And they want to discover a show one of their other friends hasn't seen or they want to discover something that is different. And this is what is driving the NFL internationally. We are the bright shiny object, we are the thing that is new. And so that phenomenon is driving our international fan. It's the flipside in the U.S. So my job as a marketer is to recognize that I am the big behemoth and there are going to be all these niche things they are interested in. But [football] is still the thing that they are most following, and is still the largest sport with a large portion of participation. And by the way our participation numbers are better than many other sports.
TV ratings were down 9% for last year's regular season. As the person in charge of marketing the league, how concerned are you about this? Has the league done anything specific to address this?
We'd have our head in the sands to not look at ratings. I do believe we are set up with a lot of the changes we are making and the fact that we are now lapping a year without an election to have better ratings. But I think everyone focuses on the long-term decline in television and obviously people are shifting viewing from TV to digital. Now, they are not shifting at 80%, they are mostly adding digital viewing to television viewing. So television is still overwhelmingly the biggest reach vehicle and we are the biggest entertainment content on television. So ratings and television ratings are really important. But when you do look all the trends going on you have to look at consumption of your product on television and other media like digital.
When we saw the ratings decline last year we didn't want to just say it's because of the election. We wanted to understand the fan experience. Where were the opportunities? We probed: Do we need to make the game shorter? And they said 'No.' They said 'Give us the right pace of play. Give the commercial breaks at the right time.'
You joined the NFL in 2014 as the league was under fire for how it handled player domestic violence cases. Do you feel like the NFL has moved beyond this?
I think you never move beyond an issue like this. It's an issue for the United States. What I think we've done is we've taken it seriously. We've developed a program. It won't be perfect. It won't affect all players. But we continue to take it seriously and so I think our fans feel really good about the vast majority of our players, and know there are some times when others fall.
Here is one of the videos from the "Random Acts of Kickoff" campaign.