As NFL training camps get started and the first preseason games rapidly approach, HBO’s Hard Knocks provides another reminder that it’s again time to get ready for some football. Entering its ninth season, Hard Knocks has become a brand enhancer for enterprising teams, coaches and players as well as a boon for those looking for unique behind-the-scenes content from America’s favorite league.
The series has featured a broad range of teams, from those coming off a Super Bowl victory (’01 Baltimore Ravens), those with megabrands (’02, ’08 Dallas Cowboys), and this year’s entry, the Atlanta Falcons, who are making their first appearance. The Falcons are coming off a disappointing non-playoff season that fell well short of their 2011 NFC Championship Game berth.
While NFL fans flock to the reality television styled programming, it’s no secret that many NFL coaches and players aren’t as fond of living the Kardashian lifestyle. With that in mind, last October the NFL passed a new rule that allows it to compel teams to appear on the program if no team volunteers. The league stipulated that all organizations will be eligible with the exception of those that have a first-year head coach, teams that have made the playoffs in one of the last two seasons and teams that have participated in any the previous 10 seasons.
While teams with more conservative cultures likely sweated out the first year of this selection process, ultimately the Atlanta Falcons stepped forward to be the next performer on The Real Football Players of the NFL.
Based on past team and player experience, what business impacts may have persuaded the Falcons to bring their training camp to America’s living room? What are the pros and cons?
Hard Knocks is a weekly advertisement for the featured team. With an estimated 29.2 million subscribers, HBO provides a platform for the team to create a more intimate relationship with the viewing public. This relationship can provide dividends in the form of increased game viewership, jersey and ticket sales, greater social media presence, and the development of athlete and coach brands that help boost the overall franchise brand.
Notably, the New York Jets 2010 appearance on Hard Knocks helped solidify the Jets as a team and a brand behind bombastic head coach Rex Ryan. That exposure even led to players such as Tim Tebow wanting to play for him.
For teams that lack the national exposure of some of the league’s premier franchises, Hard Knocks can provide a much-needed injection of excitement. The Kansas City Chiefs (’07) and Miami Dolphins (’12) used the program to help usher themselves through rebuilding periods.
Distractions. It’s that simple for players and coaches who would prefer to focus on preparing for the season instead of the wants and needs of a film crew. Even coaches that benefitted from the experience such as Ryan are reticent of returning to the platform that helped make them household names.
Last year’s show notably featured an often irritated linebacker James Harrison demonstrating his displeasure about the Bengals being featured. Others around the league, front office, coaches and players alike, share that sentiment.
Despite the objections from those most involved with developing the day-to-day product on the field, Hard Knocks perseveres because the NFL is a business. The league and its owners know the brand impact the show provides the league and its franchises. From hardcore fans interested in the inner workings of a team to casual fans that love the reality show storytelling, Hard Knocks continues to deliver value to the NFL’s most important stakeholder, the consumer.
Courtney Brunious is Associate Director at the USC Sports Business Institute and Managing Editor of The Fields of Green.