Football Fans Don't Care About Sports. Wait, What?

January 8, 2018 - ZDNet

Over the last decade, the NFL has enjoyed tremendous success. In 2007, League revenue surpassed $6 billion. In 2016, League revenue surpassed $13 billion. Television commercials during NFL games now cost more than twice what they did 10 years ago.

At the end of 2006, the NFL expanded its schedule to include a few Thursday night contests. During this season, there were games every Sunday, Monday, and Thursday.

Success without humility frequently leads to contempt. The NFL clearly had a target on its back, even before it began to face a wide range of on-the-field and off-the-field challenges. During this season, there seemed to be nothing the sports media enjoyed more than publishing pictures of half-empty stadiums at kickoff. While the League and its owners frequently push back using selective statistics, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently conceded that attendance is down.

Having spent many years working for Professor Clayton Christensen, guiding corporations, and their leaders through disruptive innovation, I now apply his Jobs-to-be-Done theory (a lens through which to identify disruptive threats and opportunities) in my daily life. If you are not familiar with the theory, the following quote by Theodore Levitt (once a professor at Harvard Business School as well) nails it in a nutshell: "People don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole."

The point is that we don't really care about the drill, we care about the outcome -- the quarter-inch hole -- that the drill helps us achieve. "Help me make a quarter-inch hole" is the Job-to-be-Done. The drill is the solution we "hire" to get that job done. Now, if something else comes along -- a dropper of wood-eating liquid, say -- that helps us more satisfactorily (less noise, dust, and cost) get that job done, we might ditch that drill in two seconds.

Given that drill company executives probably spend their time trying to one-up their fellow drill company executives, they probably wouldn't recognize that "liquid competitor" until we were all ordering from a different section on Amazon. And, as Professor Christensen's most famous theory states, that's exactly why Blockbuster, Kodak, Sears, and others were disrupted. And this might be why the NFL has an "attendance problem" -- other things are beginning to get fan jobs done more effectively.

To begin assessing whether the NFL is truly in danger of getting disrupted, let me first describe an "Ah ha!" moment that I had this past summer. Just before noon on July 18, I was sitting in a packed meeting room at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, surrounded by athletic directors, team technology leaders, and venue managers. The session, one of many smaller discussions at the SEAT Atlanta conference, was titled "Connected Smart Cities and The Future Stadium."

Over the last several years, the "smart stadium" has become all the rage in sports. Owners fear that the at-home sports watching experience will get so good at satisfying fan Jobs-to-be-Done that fans will decide to stay home. And so owners are investing heavily in stadium technology to improve the in-venue experience, which includes addressing major fan frustrations such as slow-moving traffic and long concession and bathroom lines.

For half an hour, the directors, leaders, and managers seated around me that day discussed many technology solutions (IoT, mobile, social, analytics, etc) and how they might address such frustrations. A common theme emerged early on: There is no shortage of technology solutions out there (e.g. fan experience applications with wayfinding features, stadium display boards showing line length, in-seat concession delivery), but they all cost a lot of money and no one really knows what kind of ROI they deliver.

I began to wonder if there was another way to tackle the problem. I thought to myself, what if, for a moment, we took lines for granted? What if we just accepted that there would always be lines of cars and people? Could we make those lines less frustrating?

Sitting at that round table, I had my "Ah ha!" moment. As a fan, we "hire" sports to get jobs done like "Excite me," "Feel part of something much bigger than me," "Bond with my family," and "Distract me from the stress of my daily life." Essentially, we don't care about the stadium or the sporting event itself (drills), we care about what the stadium and the sporting event help us achieve (jobs).

Now, if we, as fans, can only achieve our desired emotional and social outcomes while sitting in our seats, then, of course, we'll find frustrating lots of slow-moving cars or people keeping us from those seats (particularly if we're also spending hundreds of dollars on tickets and concessions as well).

This insight led me to make a comment toward the end of the discussion. I wondered out loud that as a group, perhaps we should not only be thinking about how we can use technology to reduce lines but how we might use technology to make those lines inherently less frustrating as well.

Later, after I returned to my room, I searched online to find examples where people or companies had solved this problem. I quickly found the following quote from a June 9 Washington Post article describing Disney World's new "Pandora: The World of Avatar" experience (emphasis mine):

You'll wait even longer for Flight of Passage, but the payoff is greater and the line easier to endure. That's because Disney has reached new heights in the design of the queue, which succeeds as an attraction unto itself. Essentially, they've built a mountain-hiking path that switchbacks up and up through a fantastical watershed. You ant-line past waterfalls and cliff walls, eventually entering a network of painted caves with ample (and how!) time to decipher the ancient history of the Na'vi. The tunnels give way to an abandoned RDA bunker and then (not there yet!) to a lab much like Weaver's HQ in the movie, including a floating Na'vi avatar bubbling and breathing in a tank. Even when the line moved ahead I lingered here, which is akin to sitting on the plane for bit after landing in Australia.

Disney has long known that lines are one of -- if not the greatest -- barrier to guest satisfaction. To tackle this problem, Disney first replaced long straight lines with now common "switchback" lines that made the wait seem shorter and added shelters around the lines to make waiting more bearable.

Over the years, Disney then worked to make the line experience part of the attraction itself to help guests satisfy their enjoyment Jobs-to-be-Done before they even set foot on the ride. I'd say a guest preferring to stand in line a bit longer constitutes success.

The question this raises for sports business leaders is intriguing: How can we help fans sitting in traffic or standing in lines achieve at least some of the in-seat payoff?

We've all had the experience of sitting in slow-moving stadium traffic. What if, while stuck in our cars, we could receive live, targeted programming through a fan experience mobile app? Dedicated announcers could describe to us in detail what's happening in the stadium, pipe through crowd noise, provide frequent traffic, parking, and weather updates, and even take questions from drivers and call out specific license plates to win prizes.

We've also all had the experience of standing in slow-moving concession lines. What if the lines themselves were elevated for a view of the field or passed by video walls displaying a line-only, high-definition, field-level "photographer's eye" view of the action? What if, while standing in line, we could be randomly selected to appear on the jumbotron or accrue greater loyalty points and rewards if the line moves more slowly than expected?

While some of these ideas are likely more viable than others, the broader objective here is to develop solutions that nail fan Jobs-to-be-Done -- the Jobs for which fans "hire" the in-seat experience -- even when the fan can't be in their seat. It's what Disney accomplished when it made the Flight of Passage line nearly as compelling a "drill" as the attraction itself. It might be time to balance trying to make lines go away with trying to make lines less frustrating.

This brings me back to the NFL and its attendance problem. If fans aren't coming to NFL stadiums, it's because other things are getting their jobs done more effectively. Owners can invest a lot of money in new smart stadiums, but few fans will not continue to "hire" the in-venue experience just because it includes the largest jumbotron or the fastest Wi-Fi. It is much more likely that fans will continue to come if owners invest in the things that reduce fan experience friction and truly nail fan emotional and social Jobs-to-be-Done.

This is true for the whole sport as well. When games only took place on Sunday and Monday and the in-venue sports consumption experience was far superior to any other, few things had the power to nail fan "Excite me" or "Distract me from the stress of my daily life" Jobs-to-be-Done like the NFL. While the NFL has become a revenue juggernaut over the last decade, it is now far more of a commodity frequently in the headlines for reasons which clearly diminish its value as a "drill" to fans.

As you think about the implications of this for the NFL and its future, think about what it might mean for you and your organization as well. Here are a few questions to consider:

1. What are your customers really buying?

Peter Drucker once famously said, "The customer rarely buys what the company thinks it's selling." Combine this with the Levitt quote above and you might just see the, well, Matrix. It may be difficult for those in the industry to consider, but sports fans are not buying tickets to sporting events. They are buying tickets to outcomes, to Jobs-to-be-Done satisfaction. They are really "outcomes fans" as we all are in all areas of our lives. We don't buy milk at the supermarket. We buy the outcomes (quench my thirst, improve my nutrition, and support my child's good health) that milk helps us achieve. You don't really care about this blog post. You care about what this blog post will do for you (ideally, if I'm lucky, entertain you, provoke your thoughts, and maybe help you work differently). It is very important that those in the sports industry -- and leaders in any industry -- consider carefully this question and its counter-intuitive answers, particularly for the following reasons...

2. Who are your real competitors?

If drill company executives realize they are selling holes and not drills, they are more likely to see threats that look nothing like other drills. They are also more likely to see opportunities ("How else could we help our customers create holes?") they would otherwise miss. If those team owners realize they are selling outcomes and not sports, they might realize that they are competing with all kinds of things that help consumers achieve the same outcomes. So, yes, while the NFL is competing with MLB for viewers when their seasons overlap, it's also competing with very different DNA'd things like eSports, Twitch, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and drone racing. When they view the business of football through a Jobs-to-be-Done lens, NFL owners might understand just why divisiveness and controversy so powerfully destroy the sport's value to consumers. And those same owners -- and leaders in any industry -- might also discover new ways to double down on delivering what truly matters.

3. What is your traffic? Your concession lines?

When organizations realize they are selling outcomes, they see opportunities and threats very differently. When organizations take the time to see their products and services and experiences through the eyes of customers and to do that faithfully (i.e. holding back "the customer doesn't know what they're talking about" bias), they often see friction they've ignored or dismissed, friction which could be deadly in a day when customers can identify alternative solutions and switch in the blink of an eye. As I've argued here, if owners don't find ways to reduce the friction inherent to the live in-stadium experience (and realize that "bigger is better" doesn't work), fans will flee more quickly than they can imagine. The same goes for leaders in any industry -- if you don't double-down on maximizing value to your customers (always seeking to increase the "Jobs-to-be-Done crushing" benefits of your solution while reducing friction), they will not be your customers for very long.

4. Finally, when should it be "Day 2?"

The answer: Never. For years, Jeff Bezos has held close the belief that organizations on their first day are hungry, lean, and paranoid (homage to Andy Grove) when it comes to delivering customer delight. But on their "second day," they lose their edge, even slightly. Earlier this year, Bezos was asked by an employee what Day 2 looks like. His response, "Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1."

To paraphrase something Professor Christensen once wrote, the more successful an organization, the harder it is for the organization to change. Across professional sports leagues, Day 2 came and went a long time ago. A victim of its own success, the NFL is in fact approaching day 35,600 and it shows. In other industries, organizations like the NFL that prioritize their own products over their own customers come and go in the blink of an eye. Sports team owners -- and leaders in any industry -- must not take for granted that "if they build it, customers will come."

To sustainably lead, much less survive, it is imperative that organizations and their leaders stay very close to their customers' Jobs-to-be-Done and prioritize doing what it takes to continue to satisfy those jobs. While the NFL has enjoyed tremendous revenue growth over the last decade, there are signs that such growth has masked a widening fundamental -- and potentially disruptive -- gap between what it is selling and what its fans want to buy.