NFL’s digital chief: ‘Football is the only sure bet’

January 26, 2015, 11:54 PM UTC
Courtesy of NFL

Other than its commissioner, Roger Goodell, the National Football League’s executives stay behind the scenes. It is a corporate culture of silence and solemnity. Its people tend to keep their heads down, closing the deals that are helping the NFL chug toward $10 billion in annual revenue.

One of the folks behind the curtain is Brian Rolapp, who is in charge of NFL Media and, by extension, properties like NFL Network,, the RedZone channel, Thursday Night Football, and the league’s many digital offerings. A devout Mormon and a graduate of Brigham Young University and Harvard Business School, Rolapp, 42, grew up outside Washington, D.C. He joined the NFL in 2003, after three years at NBCUniversal.

Insiders say he’s risen in the ranks to become one of the most powerful people at the NFL. One NFL team executive, speaking to Fortune anonymously, says the NFL’s digital business became more focused once Rolapp came: “Prior to Brian, they had ex-TV guys who had no idea what the Internet was, who would laugh at it. Brian understood what the power of the Web would be moving forward. And when Brian came in-house, the commissioner became much more comfortable doing things on the digital side because he knew he had a guy.”

This week the NFL announced the launch of its official YouTube channel, something Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association have had for years. This season also saw the debut of NFL Now, an ambitious new digital product that Rolapp spearheaded. (See: “Are you ready for 24/7 football?“) Ahead of Super Bowl XLIX, Rolapp agreed to a rare, exclusive interview with Fortune. It was the second of two long interviews: the first took place in Rolapp’s office at the NFL’s New York City headquarters before this season began; the second was over the phone this month after the AFC and NFC championship games. He spoke about the rise of cord-cutting, the lessons learned from the first year of NFL Now, and how NFL Media handled the league’s domestic abuse crisis.

The following is an edited transcript taken from the two conversations.

In Rolapp’s office in New York is a large, framed photograph from 1965, entitled “Bad Day at Mount Hermon.” It depicts a football game between two Massachusetts private schools, Northfield Mount Hermon and Deerfield Academy. In the background, a campus building is on fire. But the people in the stands intently watch the game as the flames roar behind them.

FORTUNE: That photo seems so fitting for an NFL executive’s office. There’s a fire and they’re still playing the game.

ROLAPP: Not only are they still playing the game, everybody’s watching it. The science building is on fire and no one cares. I like it because there’s a bunch of lessons in it. All the stuff we do is completely irrelevant if the game’s not good and pure. And sometimes, you know, you have to just have an obsessive focus on it. Look, it’s clear the media world is going through a lot of disruption, but regardless of what happens with Aereo or whatever it is, NFL football will pull through. [Author’s note: One week after this exchange took place, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Aereo violated TV copyrights, and Aereo suspended its service.] The building’s on fire, but it doesn’t matter, if the content’s good.

It is interesting to hear you mention Aereo right off the bat. Is that something you guys are scared of?

I wouldn’t say we’re scared of it. We’re conscious of it. I mean, I think the large theme is there’s never been a more rapid change in media and technology. And that’s only accelerating. I actually think that’s an opportunity for us, because at the end of the day, if you have really good content, then it creates an opportunity. Aereo is just the latest. And Aereo could completely change the world, and we’ll adjust to it, or it could be Napster, and we’ll move on to the next one. I guess we’ll find out. The point is, if you’re scared by new technology, then you’re already lost. We say it all the time around here: Whatever can be done will be done. So, it’s going to get done, you just have to make sure you get a plan for it.

Along the same lines, to what extent do you watch what the other major sports leagues are doing?

I spend a lot of time looking at other products. I’m a big fan of what baseball does, but I’m also a big fan of Netflix. I’m a big fan of HBO Go. I’m a fan of Spotify. You learn and try to take the best from each product. It’s like that quote, “Talent borrows, genius steals.”

Where do you guys ‘steal’ from?

I think it’s Netflix. I think we also see, in Spotify and Pandora, the personalization, the “custom to me” is a really powerful trend. The sleekness of the HBO Go app is really good. If you do what we do, or what baseball does, or what NBC does, you’re competing for people’s time, attention, and wallet. Share of mind, share of eyeballs. How many hobbies can you really have in this life? And so we’d better be one.

One new deal that certainly proved the NFL’s TV bargaining power was with CBS for a Thursday Night Football package. What could be a better sign of the sport’s power than the fact that CBS paid hundreds of millions just to show games that also air on NFL Network?

There was a lot of confusion about that point. A lot of people thought, “If the same game is on NFL Network, why would CBS ever do that?” The reality is that it was a true simulcast, so the very same ads that were running on CBS ran on NFL Network, so it did not hurt them. My thinking wasn’t any more complicated than, “If there are 10 people who are conditioned to go to NFL Network to watch the Thursday night game, we don’t want to lose them.” [Note: the Thursday Night Football deal with CBS was just renewed this month for next season.]

When we started Thursday Night Football, the thinking was that Thursdays could be made into a football night, just like Mondays and Sundays are. We started with a measured approach, eight games, all on the NFL Network. Then we noticed: it’s the fastest growing package. It’s getting only stronger. How do we improve it? The reality is, on television right now, there’s NFL football, and then there’s everything else. As far as I can tell, football is the only sure bet on television.

When the experience of viewing at home is so good now, how do you guys try to get people to keep going to games in person? Are you addressing that, or is it not your purview because you’re on the digital side?

I don’t think that just because of my current job I have the luxury to ignore that. I think it’s the opposite. One of the ways we set it up here is that no one is so obsessively focused on one thing that they can ignore something else that’s important to the league. The things we’re doing on the media side in wireless and elsewhere, we are trying to leverage that into the stadium experience as well. We understand what the time and the commitment and the money is for a fan to actually buy season tickets or go to a game. We still think it’s the best place to experience the NFL. Until you actually see these athletes and what they do on the field, in person, that can’t be replicated. Talk to Seattle fans from the NFC Championship last year. They all could have watched that on television, and they could probably see tighter shots of Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch. But I don’t think they’d trade that experience for the world. (See: “Benched: Beats By Dre and the other big brands banned in the NFL.”)

But we can’t ignore what’s going on on the couch and what’s going on in the household. You do them both together. They’re equal priorities right now. In the stadium, 98 percent of all available tickets are sold. But 98 percent is not good enough. We want 100 percent. In the stadium, there’s a portfolio of problems to solve. We’re trying to solve the bandwidth issue. How can I send a text to my buddy or upload a photo on Instagram? It’s a process.

Outside of TV, this was the launch season for NFL Now, the league’s new video platform. How did it go?

I would classify the launch as successful. I’m not sure what our expectations exactly were, but we learned a lot, even in the first six weeks of launching. NFL fans are never shy about giving you feedback when you ask for it.

What fans really liked is they could get it on any mobile device or any connected device at home. We have had 22 million devices connect to this thing so far, and it ranges everywhere from Apple TV to Roku to your tablet. [Note: That figure does not represent 22 million people. If one fan logs in on their phone, tablet, and Xbox, it counts three times.] One thing that was surprising was we thought the value would be highlights, news, and information, but where people gravitated to was the long-form content, the Netflix-style content, shows like A Football Life, content that you lean back and watch. They were accessing that almost two times as much. I knew that would be appealing, but I didn’t know it would be the main attraction.

That will become a very large and important component to it, and I think we will tighten up how we message that to consumers. I think sometimes the value proposition of NFL Now was hard to understand. It’s hard to represent with a pithy marketing message.

How did the idea for NFL Now come about?

It started years ago. We knew that the world was going to be increasingly mobile. It was going to be increasingly social. It was going to be increasingly device-agnostic. And video was going to play an increasingly important part as access to broadband, wireless or otherwise, was becoming cheaper and more ubiquitous. So those were the big trends. And our view was, well, how do you prepare for that world? And then you had a larger horizon which is, What does the world look like when our TV contracts are up in 2022? We really don’t know, but we should probably have something that hits all those boxes and those trends.

From when we started thinking about it, gosh, three years ago, Netflix was probably in 5 million or 8 million homes, and now it’s in 50 million. And [NFL Now has] the Pandora personalization aspect. You’re going to thumb-up and thumb-down and tell me what you like and don’t like. And my recommendation engine’s going to be able to drive that, and that’s just going to get smarter over time. But I don’t think I would sit here and tell you that our first prediction engine is going to be as good as Pandora’s or as good as Amazon’s, because it’s just not.

Who are the key people involved in building something like this?

It really starts with the strategic premise that these are big trends which Roger and Steve [Bornstein] and our digital media committee, which [New England Patriots president] Jonathan Kraft is the chairman of, and [Washington Redskins owner] Dan Snyder the co-chairman, all talk about a lot. And we talk a lot about it with our broadcast committee. And then once you identify the trends, then we need to prepare for what it looks like, what do we need to do even if you don’t know the products. And then once we came up with the idea of a digital network, or NFL Now, Jon was closely involved and Roger was closely involved. Roger’s very much the CEO.

How often do you talk to Goodell directly?

Oh, almost every day. There is not a part of the building of the business that he doesn’t understand and think about. If you work for Roger, you work for Roger, and you’re going to talk to him a lot. At the same time, Roger believes in his people, and he lets you go. He doesn’t micromanage.

The culture of the NFL is known to be very defined, and a lot of it is about integrity.

Sure. The reason I came over was I had a true belief in the NFL, and how powerful it was. I was a fan. I loved it. And it was clearly powerful media. But also I had this fundamental belief that whether they knew it or not, sports leagues had to look more like media companies, because that’s where the world was going and the licensing model was only going to get them so far.

Do you feel like you stay behind the scenes on purpose? Is there a kind of code at the NFL of not saying much externally?

I don’t know if there’s a code. But I don’t spend a lot of time self-promoting. It’s not our culture. Like, I don’t know how many people knew who Roger Goodell was until he was commissioner. But he was essentially the second-most important person in this building for a long time. And so I’m not saying that’s who I am, but it’s not our culture [to self-promote].

Do you hate doing this, for example? Doing interviews?

Oh, I fought these [public relations] guys on it. I did.

So, what are some other products you guys have built from scratch or successfully revamped recently?

I’d point to what we’ve done with the draft. Even early on, it was out-rating NBA Playoffs games. And it was the commissioner reading names for a day! So we said, “Well, how do we make it bigger?” The first thing we did is, we put it on a second network, the NFL Network. People said, “Why would you simulcast it? That’s not going to work. You’re just going to eat each other’s lunch.” And the reality is, guess what? The total pie is great both for us and for ESPN. Then it was, “All right. How else can we make it bigger?” We put it on over three days and then put it into primetime.

You saw the opportunity for a spectacle.

Yeah. And I remember sitting in the truck on the first night, and we thought, going in, we’d have the biggest draft we’d had in a long time because Johnny Manziel was coming and all that. Or, we thought we could at least have as successful a draft as we’d ever had. But we still say, “This should be bigger. This should be bigger. This should be bigger.”

So, what’s the answer?

One thing we’re thinking about is, why don’t we forget the big venue and why don’t we make it all about the team facilities? And the way you produce it is you go and you spend time there. So you have the guys who just got picked on Thursday night and Friday night and now they’re flying to Carolina to join their new team. And they’re there with the current players, and with retired players, and you have fans there. You put it on NFL Network and you have Chris Berman at ESPN in the studio, and you make it all about the teams and their fans. Then there’s about four or five other ideas we’re working on. We’ll see.

Can you discuss the difficult year for the NFL in terms of the player conduct scandals, with Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and everything that came with it? How did NFL Media handle it?

Well, we didn’t keep our heads down. From a news and editorial standpoint, we [NFL Network] covered the story. And we never run away from stories, good or bad. If it’s news and can be substantiated as news, and the facts can be reported, that’s what we do and did. What we didn’t do is spend a lot of programming hours speculating. We didn’t try to guess what the facts might be, we reported facts. We’ve never run away from any news stories. When the Mueller Report [about the Ray Rice incident] came out, we reported it, we spent hours going over it, reporting the facts. And when Roger gave his press conferences, we reported the news.

It’s interesting that when you look at news and television these days, there’s less of that. There’s quick news, and then programming hour after programming hour of speculation, opinion, and conjecture. I don’t think our fans want that.

What can the league do to monitor or improve player behavior off the field?

We spend a lot of time educating these guys on that. It’s how they conduct themselves when the camera’s on but it’s also when it’s off, what they do on social media, all of those things. And sometimes at that age, you don’t differentiate between what I say on Twitter and what I say if NBC has a camera in my face. But it’s kind of the same.

I think if anything it’s a very small number who end up making poor choices, and the reality is the vast, vast, vast majority of these guys are good guys.

The other big, pressing issue is head injuries. And you’ve heard all the criticisms that the league doesn’t do enough.

Well, concussion isn’t a football issue. It’s a sports issue, and the incident rates among soccer and lacrosse are high too, and hockey. But we understand we’re the biggest—you know, the most high-profile sport—and that comes with the territory and we accept the responsibility. You can complain all you want that you’re not being treated the same in the press and that no one’s talking about hockey, but who cares. You have to lead on it. And I think that’s the mentality here. So it’s an opportunity for us to lead. If we actually can move the national conversation on head injuries in sports, great. If we can make girl soccer players safer because we’re actually doing things around football, great.

The Super Bowl is coming up. What can the league do to avoid games like last year’s Super Bowl—a total blowout, not exciting for fans?

Well, one thing we look at a lot is number of points scored, which, on average, is higher than it’s ever been. But more important than that, margin of victory. And on average, that is the lowest it’s ever been.

But with last year’s game specifically, with a final score of 43 to 8… or, a few seasons ago, when the Detroit Lions didn’t win a single game in the regular season…

That shouldn’t happen.

Right. So what can you do to avoid those blowouts? To at least try to have even talent in each division?

Well, I think it’s giving the fans more and more alternatives. So in an old world, on a Sunday, if that happened—forget about the Super Bowl for a minute, just on a regular week—you know that it’s a blowout and you’re not interested, you could either turn the channel or go outside and do something else. Now there’s the RedZone Channel, which you can go and watch. There’s also Sunday Ticket, if you have that. If you’re online, we have in-progress highlights where you can see what’s going on around the league. You have Fantasy. You have your second screen open. And now you have NFL Now. So if a viewer is choosing to turn off a particular game because it’s a blowout, because he can’t take it anymore, I don’t want him going anywhere. I want him staying with us.

You’re from D.C. Do you cheer for the Redskins?

I cheer for TV ratings. I don’t cheer for teams.

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