NFL experts spill strategies and partnerships behind their success

Kirstin White | Mon May 06 2024 | Client success stories

The National Football League (NFL) is a juggernaut in sports, boasting unparalleled popularity and fan engagement. As the world of media consumption has evolved, the league recognized the need to adapt at the right time to stay relevant. With that, they stepped in with the launch of NFL+, their direct-to-consumer (D2C) streaming service, now a classic success story. 

There’s much to learn from their “behind-the-scenes.” The switch from Game Pass to NFL+ wasn’t without challenges and didn’t come as a cakewalk. What worked is that they identified the right problems and navigated them skillfully with robust strategies and innovative approaches. This was possible with their vision and cooperation from specialized partners.

In a recent panel discussion titled "Inside the Huddle," experts from the NFL, Michael Orloff (Director of D2C Strategy) and Ian Campbell (Senior Director of D2C Product) spoke with Gilles Domartini (CEO of Cleeng) and industry analyst Ben Keen about their close collaboration in navigating this success.

Check out the panel recording below, or scroll down for the highlights.


Table of Contents:

-Smoothly launching NFL+ in a timeframe as short as three months

-Carving out a unique offering to stand out

-Nailing the product offering by understanding user needs

-Delivering premium user experiences across touchpoints

-Understanding subscriber behavior to reduce churn

-Overcoming seasonal churn with offer flexibility

-Innovating on the go with monetization approaches

Smoothly launching in a timeframe as short as three months

A short deployment timeframe was a key challenge when launching a sports league as prominent as the NFL. Their timelines needed to sync with the season launches, leaving no room for any permissible delays. Yet, the risks of migrating from a legacy system were to be taken care of. They skillfully carried out this balancing act, choosing support from the right partners to lead the transition. 

“Cleeng was awarded the deal in April, and the service had to be launched by July. Thanks to Cleeng's existing tools, APIs, and SDKs, we were able to meet the tight deadline and deliver a platform capable of handling the scale of the NFL.”

Cleeng's CEO, Gilles Domartini, shared how his past PPV experience taught him the art of deploying scalable platforms quickly. He shared references from experience with events like Mayweather-Pacquiao and Mayweather-McGregor fights. "We have a unique ability to deploy such a platform in a very short time frame. And this was a key requirement for the NFL team," Domartini said.

Carving out a unique offering to stand out 

The NFL team was clear: They had to provide exclusive content and experiences that traditional broadcasting partners could not offer to stand out in the sports streaming world.

They approached this uniquely and responded with steps to expand the "football diet." This included offering live press conferences, behind-the-scenes access, and unique programming like the famous "RedZone" channel, seamlessly switching between live games to showcase the most exciting moments. Michael Orloff describes RedZone as "one of the only ways outside of Sunday ticket that you're able to see the live version of out-of-market games."

Ian Campbell explained, "Being a very focused direct-to-consumer service allows us to essentially grow your football diet farther than a partner might do on a day-to-day basis."

Nailing the product offering by understanding user needs

The panelists emphasized the tremendous importance they placed on understanding fan behavior. They made sure to leverage those learnings to tailor their product and messaging, and the partners they chose supported them in achieving that.

For instance, mobile live game rights were initially offered for free. Later, they moved it behind a paywall as they figured there was a need to create a more premium experience for subscribers. Their partners provided them with the flexibility they needed to make the changes on the go.

"We essentially continued on in a behavior that had existed over ten years," Orloff explained. “As we launched new things and crossed platforms, we're learning that creating a new behavior is sometimes a bit more challenging. You have to be very intentional and smart in terms of how you're trying to communicate and build those new behaviors. And it's a way that Cleeng has actually been very helpful … telling the right message to the right person at the right time is pretty critical to drive those new behaviors.

NFL+ Streaming Platform and Apps

Delivering premium user experiences across touchpoints

In rolling out its direct-to-consumer streaming service NFL+, the NFL strongly emphasized delivering a premium user experience befitting one of the world's top sports brands. They were unwilling to settle below excellence at any step, whether it was about managing offers across multiple platforms and payment methods while ensuring a smooth billing transition for subscribers.

The NFL reflected this commitment in their partnership with Cleeng, which allowed them to streamline the different subscriber management complexities, from smooth payment and checkouts to offering seamless support.

Ian Campbell, Senior Director of D2C Product at the NFL, spoke about how they heavily focused on robust customer service. He praised Cleeng's dedicated Hi5 customer care suite, “Something that was very distinctive from Cleeng was their Hi5 customer service team, which we've come to rely on for more than just D2C.” 

By partnering with a platform like Cleeng, the NFL navigated the intricate technical and operational aspects of managing its streaming service, enabling the league to focus on curating a premium experience worthy of its brand and its passionate fan base.

Explore the Hi5 customer care solution

Understanding subscriber behavior to reduce churn

One of the biggest challenges in the streaming industry, particularly for sports content, is managing subscriber churn. The panelists discussed their strategies for approaching this, which centered around understanding subscriber behavior, identifying patterns, and responding at the right time. 

They chose to use data analytics tools ChurnIQ to understand subscriber behavior and preferences deeply, leverage data intelligence to predict churn risks, and take the right steps to prevent churning. 

ChurnIQ made this easy and supported creating user segments based on their behaviors and preferences. Ian highlighted that ChurnIQ offered "very clever ways to start to understand behaviors and segment users in different ways.” It also enabled the league to deliver personalized offers, promotions, and messaging that resonated with different subscriber segments. This improved its retention rates and maximized the value of its customer relationships. 

Could ChurnIQ help my churn rates?

Overcoming seasonal churn with offer flexibility

Much like any player in sports streaming, the NFL faced the challenge of seasonality, with subscribers potentially churning during the off-season. 

To combat this, the league combined various offer types to give customers the flexibility of choice, including Seasonal Subscriptions. Through Seasonal Subscriptions, the NFL could build its content offering around the football season's dates instead of the standard annual SKU. This unique offer setup meant their customers no longer needed to re-register for the new season, as their subscription would automatically renew.

Promotional prices - seasonal subscriptions

Learn more about Seasonal Subscriptions

While acknowledging that a long-term subscription is most desirable for the league, Orloff also highlighted the importance of flexibility and personalization: " Finding the right place, the right time, the right offer for that person—that's where we work very closely with Cleeng and that team in terms of trying to evolve that strategy.”

Innovating on the go with monetization approaches

As the NFL looks ahead, they’re clear that opportunities for further innovation lie in brand integration, hybrid monetization models, and leveraging the streaming service as a gateway to broader fan experiences. 

"There's a lot of interesting opportunities that we can leverage some of that integration work to start to enable in a bit of a longer term roadmap," said Orloff.

Speaking on the league’s FAST channel specifically, Orloff explained how it serves as a way to continue engaging and monetizing churned subscribers:

"FAST channel is an awesome place for us to...continue the monetization of the subscriber, but also a way to continue the engagement of the subscriber, keep them in the ecosystem. And then when they're ready to come back to that more premium experience, we already have them there and are easily able to deliver a message."

What are the next steps for NFL+?

As the streaming landscape continues to evolve, the NFL's approach to its D2C offering, NFL+, serves as a valuable case study for other sports rights owners and content providers. By focusing on expanding the fan experience, scaling through strategic partnerships, and implementing data-driven subscriber retention strategies, the league has successfully navigated the challenges of launching and growing a direct-to-consumer streaming service.

The panel's insights underscore the importance of agility, continuous learning, and collaboration across different departments and partners. Ultimately, NFL+'s success hinges on delivering exceptional value to fans, fostering engagement, and adapting to changing consumer expectations in the rapidly evolving world of sports streaming.

As Gilles Domartini advised, "Move fast, learn fast, and work with vendors that make it easy for you."

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