The future of the National Football League (NFL) is young and multicultural.
As tastes, technology, and the ethnic demographics of the United States shift with each generation, the country’s number-one sport must shift along with it or risk losing its hard-fought foothold. Each season brings new challenges, so the league relies on people like Marissa Fernandez to keep the league healthy and growing.
In her role as director of marketing and fan development, Fernandez oversees the league’s marketing efforts for two important fan segments: youth and Hispanics in the United States. “Across all of our youth efforts, we’re thinking proactively on how it applies to Hispanics,” she says, adding that the NFL is under indexed relative to the national average of Hispanics. “We need to start young and encourage young Latinos to play and love the game.”
And Fernandez’s background means she’s uniquely equipped to tackle these challenges. “I experienced on a very microlevel the phenomenon occurring across the country of cultures fusing, minority becoming the majority, and multiculturalism becoming mainstream,” says Fernandez, who was raised by a Cuban father and a Jewish mother. “My personal experience has allowed me to naturally think about how those insights apply on a more macro level.”
For the past ten years, Fernandez has had various levels of Hispanic marketing responsibility, including big brand management at Procter & Gamble. Before she joined the NFL, Fernandez was with a small, Hispanic-focused marketing, and research consulting company in Washington, DC, called the Latinum Network that worked with companies to build their businesses by effectively targeting and engaging Hispanic consumers. At Latinum, Fernandez worked with the NFL as a consultant for the league for two years before an internal position became available.
Downloads of NFL RUSH Gameday app in its first season
Average time users spent per visit using the NFL RUSH Gameday app
NFL Play 60 Character Camps in 2017– targeting high Hispanic youth populations
Portion of Americans ages 12 and up who are fans of the NFL, according to an ESPN 2016 Sports Poll study
Rank of the NFL’s fan base in the country, with more than 186 million supporters
As a fan of the NFL brand as a sports fan and as a marketer, Fernandez jumped at the opportunity to join the team. “Figuring out how to make people loyal and fall in love with brands, the NFL has done that arguably better than any brand in the world,” she says. “So getting to work on a brand with that kind of power, that I myself am a fan of, is really appealing.”
Today, Fernandez spends most of her days figuring out how to entice the next generation of football fans that are increasingly moving away from television screens.
In 2016, Fernandez and her team launched the NFL RUSH Gameday app, which is designed to engage families—particularly children—while they watch their teams play. Users are able to design an avatar and play virtual games that are meant to complement the game-watching experience, competing for virtual coins to buy team-customized swag for their avatars.
According to Fernandez, the app is also meant to help parents pass their team fandom to their children. “Twenty years ago when a parent decided to put the game on in the afternoon, that’s what the whole family was doing because that was the only entertainment option,” Fernandez says. “Now because kids have more content choices through their device, they might be disconnected, and it’s harder for parents to keep their kids involved on game day.”
Because parents are the gatekeepers of what gets downloaded, according to her team’s research, the team customized the marketing and targeted all of its paid media toward parents. “We delivered more than 630,000 downloads in the first season,” Fernandez says. “We significantly over-delivered our download goals.” Even more impressive were the app’s engagement metrics. According to the research, while children spend an average of two and half minutes in an app, users were spending an average of seven minutes with NFL RUSH Gameday.
To continue to widen the NFL fan base, the league supports youth football around the country. “Research indicates that playing football is one of the single biggest drivers of fan affinity,” Fernandez says. “Encouraging more kids to play is paramount in marketing.” Not only will this possibly create future players, it creates future NFL fans.
As part of its youth football efforts, Fernandez and her team partner with Anthony Muñoz, a hall-of-famer and former Cincinnati Bengal, on NFL Play 60 Character Camps. The Character Camps are hosted across the country in highly Hispanic markets. In 2017, Muñoz and the league will host sixteen camps, introducing campers to football fundamentals, highlighting the importance of being active and healthy, and the importance of character and values such as honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, and resiliency.
While these camps are targeted at Hispanic youth, Fernandez says, “It’s an introductory football camp. But we’re very specific with who we invite and where we host the camp because we want to target those underserved markets,” she says. These communities would otherwise not have any connection with the NFL, so these camps give them a chance to connect with and become lifelong fans.
Another initiative that Fernandez and her team recently undertook was a revamping of the NFL’s Hispanic Heritage month efforts. When the NFL began its Hispanic Heritage Month messaging more than two years ago, Fernandez found that it wasn’t resonating as well as the team had hoped.
“We realized that around Hispanic Heritage month, a lot of brands were coming out with a very similar message,” Fernandez says. To break through the clutter, the team called an audible, creating the theme “Feel the Orgullo,” which resonated with not only the pride that Hispanic fans feel for their heritage but also the pride associated with rooting for their team.
According to Fernandez, the NFL has seen significantly more engagement in the content it has created, including increased traffic to its Hispanic Heritage month website. “For the first time, we’re seeing user-generated content and engagement, measured through our campaign hashtag: #FeelTheOrgullo,” Fernandez says.
To continue that momentum, the NFL is continuing a partnership with the Hispanic Heritage Leadership Foundation with its sixth annual Hispanic Heritage Leadership Awards, where thirty-two Hispanic community leaders—nominated by each NFL team—are honored with a $2,000 grant and a trophy during Hispanic Heritage Month.
“I am optimistic that the NFL is focused on the right areas to be well-positioned to win in the future,” Fernandez says. “Being able to work on a brand that fans love so deeply and to help market a platform that unifies so many of us around the world—especially in these times where there isn’t a whole lot that brings people together—is really humbling and gratifying. The NFL brings people together.”
In the end, what Fernandez finds fulfilling is the ability to manage and mentor young talent, something that she also credits for her own success.
“What I’ve been able to achieve in my career and life is due to a strong support system of mentors and advocates in my personal and professional life,” she says. “I am eternally grateful for everything I’ve learned from managers, mentors, and my family. As I continue to tackle business and personal challenges, I derive strength from the people in my life who have given me support and confidence. If more people were able to support each other, imagine the impact we can have on businesses and cultures.”