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Protecting Its Turf

Though Still No. 1, the NFL Is Adjusting Its Game Plan


NEW YORK — As football season kicks off, America's Game is spending time on the analyst's couch.

"Does Football Still Matter?" Esquire magazine asks in a high-testosterone cover story.

TV ratings for National Football League games have slipped from their peaks; surveys show the NFL trailing its brasher rival, the National Basketball Assn., in popularity among teenagers; and soccer keeps making inroads as a participation sport.

But make no mistake, pro football is still the king of American sports, as it has been since 1965, when a Louis Harris poll showed that it had finally eclipsed baseball in the hearts of fans.

The NFL is a solid No. 1 in per-game attendance, average TV ratings, U.S. licensing revenues and the fees it commands from broadcasters and corporate sponsors such as Coca-Cola Co., McDonald's Corp. and Anheuser Busch Cos.

In fact, the league shares more than a marketing relationship with such corporate giants. The NFL's biggest challenge--like that of Coke or Budweiser--is simply staying on top.

So what's a juggernaut to do?

The tradition-soaked NFL is reluctant to tinker with a formula that pulls 113 million people a week into its television tent. But conscious of its relative weakness among women and young people, the league has lately stepped up its marketing efforts to those groups:

* Rather than simply selling team jerseys in "men's small" sizes, NFL licensees are starting to offer more stylish apparel specifically for women--a wool beret with a discreet team logo, for instance, instead of a garish baseball cap.

* The NFL is expanding its support for youth football programs, including flag-football leagues for both sexes, reasoning that youngsters who actually play the game are the most likely to become rabid fans--and NFL consumers--later on.

* The Punt, Pass and Kick skills competition for youths has just opened a girls division.

* A line of NFL-themed children's books is being produced under a deal with Walt Disney Co.

* A four-year agreement signed last month with No. 2 toy maker Hasbro Inc. will not only put $6 million to $10 million plus licensing fees into the NFL's coffers but will put more football-related toys into the hands of girls and boys.

New offerings will include 12-inch action figures of NFL stars--an expansion of Hasbro's Starting Lineup brand--as well as board games, electronic games and spongy Nerf footballs with the NFL shield and team logos.

The goal is "to get football into kids' play situations, whether it's in the backyard or the back seat of the car," an NFL spokesman said.

"That's sponsorship in the '90s," said Rick Burton, a former consultant to the NFL who is now assistant director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon's business school.

"You don't want just money from sponsors but activism," Burton added. "You want them to commit to spending a certain amount of their budget to promote your goals."

Activism is why upstart Fox network's power sweep into NFL broadcasting in 1994 had significance that went beyond the record $1.58 billion it paid for the four-year deal and beyond the fact that it elbowed CBS out of a sport it had been televising since 1956.

Using football to gain peer status with the Big Three networks, Fox promoted its NFL games heavily during its prime-time schedule--a lineup of shows such as "The Simpsons" that appealed strongly to young viewers.

Fox, by showing how to squeeze every drop of value out of its NFL connection, "really raised the bar" for other broadcasters, a league official said.

Thus industry analysts predict that the NFL's next TV contract will be hundreds of millions of dollars richer than the current one, which expires after this season.

For one thing, CBS, under new boss Mel Karmazin, will be highly motivated to break back into the club, whose other current members--besides Fox--are NBC, ABC, ESPN and TNT.

The $1.1 billion in annual broadcast rights fees dwarfs all other sources of revenue for the NFL, but the league is still pushing to develop new sources.

For example, Fox and the NFL are partners in the World League of American Football, the most ambitious effort so far to popularize the sport internationally.

The league, with teams in six European cities, has had spotty success, drawing as many as 30,000 spectators in Germany and as few as 10,000 in Britain.

Although sources say the two partners are losing $20 million a year on the venture, the NFL says it has not lost heart. The league continues to promote the game overseas by staging preseason games in Mexico, Japan and Europe between regular NFL teams .

The NFL also just signed a three-year deal with Indianapolis-based Thomson Consumer Electronics, the maker of RCA televisions. Thomson wants to exploit the relationship to sell more big-screen TVs, which spokesman Frank McCann called "the profit end of the business."

Nearly one-third of all big-screen sales come in December and January alone, which McCann said is directly related to the climax of the NFL season.

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