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Paul Tagliabue
  Paul Tagliabue

Paul Tagliabue: Keeping Your Eye on the Ball

2/20/2007 --

Demographic, technological and global changes are putting NFL public communications specialists to the test.

Watch video of Tagliabue's talk, "Persuasion: Lessons Learned in the NFL." Minimum requirements: Windows Media 9 and DSL, cable modem or corporate LAN.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.---The National Football League will need to be as agile, skillful and accurate as Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning in communicating its goals and values to millions of professional football fans who are rapidly becoming more complex, diversified and global.

“We have an audience that literally goes from age four to 94 and is massive in scope,” said former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who spoke last week at Rackham Auditorium on “Persuasion: Lessons Learned in the NFL.” His lecture was presented by the Yaffe Center for Persuasive Communication at the Ross School of Business and the Michigan Center for Sport Management.

“Fans are increasingly diverse due to the growth of the Hispanic and Asian-American populations, the interest of women in sports, and the aging of the American Baby Boom generation, which has both the health and the means to be interested in sports, entertainment and leisure,” he said. “The complexity and diversity of the audience is a big challenge.”

As the NFL rolls out its plans to go global, with future games planned for Beijing and London, that challenge will be compounded, he said. The revolution in digital and Internet communications, which have eclipsed print media and traditional advertising, also is putting NFL communications specialists to the test.

“Today the coverage is 24/7, and it focuses not just on the game, but on controversial adjuncts, such as player misconduct and coaching controversies,” said Tagliabue, who stepped down as commissioner in September 2006 after 17 years at the helm. “Sometimes these controversies involve simple issues and other times they involve issues of diversity and race. We in sports manage to get ourselves into all of the controversial issues that our society is dealing with.”

Over the years, the NFL has become a focal point for advocacy groups of all types, which “are critically important in our society but also require our communications to deal effectively with a wide range of points of views,” he said. In addition, television partners, advertisers and programmers are communicating “for and about us, and frequently in ways that are not consistent with how we see ourselves.”

Although the NFL cannot stop the forces that are reshaping today’s professional sports, the league has used effective public communications to ensure the right message is reaching the intended target. Tagliabue briefed the audience on the game plan that was developed during his tenure as commissioner and over the previous 20 years he worked as an NFL legal counselor. The League’s communications, he explained, have been guided by clarity of thinking in four key areas: 1) credibility in goals, vision and strategy; 2) reality in conducting business to achieve those goals and vision; 3) understanding of NFL audiences; and 4) candor and credibility in articulating big themes and small details.

“Effective communications are at the heart of everything you do in managing an organization,” Tagliabue said. “If you master those four things, your communications can be a very valuable organizational asset. If you don’t, your communications are likely to be ad hoc, inconsistent, inadequate and lacking in credibility.”

All NFL communications, he continued, reflect the “strategic constants” established by the commissioner and the league office to guide the NFL’s approach to the game, its fans, communities, players, coaches and partners. Strategic goals set by the league also come into play. These include continuing to be America’s passion in sports, ensuring the game is outstanding on the field, guaranteeing television and electronic-media coverage to all fans, building fan-friendly stadiums and environments, and investing in the development of the game through youth football.

Like a Super Bowl quarterback, however, the NFL must continue to look ahead and anticipate the moves of its opponents, Tagliabue said. Issues looming on the horizon revolve around transparency, embedded media and self-coverage by the NFL Network. Global sports competition cannot be ignored either, he added.

“Eighteen months ago, I was in China to take a look at the flag football leagues the NFL is supporting,” Tagliabue said. “I came back with the conviction that a lot of people in the NFL better start studying Chinese and that I may want to live and teach in China, because so much of the next few decades will be driven by what happens in Asia and other parts of the world where the United States and its citizens to this point have been insufficiently engaged.”

Written by Claudia Capos

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat
Phone: (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847