Lovers of American football will tell you that the sport is more than just a game. There’s a sense of camaraderie between fans of the same team—and plenty of competition between rivals.
But how can teams maintain a sense of community in a pandemic, when fans aren’t allowed in the stands?
The NFL turned to TikTok for an out-of-the-box engagement strategy: having its players and teams reach out to fans directly through comments on people’s posts and videos.
“Think about moments when a player waves or tosses the ball to a kid in the stands,” said Ian Trombetta, SVP of social and influencer marketing at the NFL. “That moment is so special. We found that commenting is almost like throwing the football in the stands. ”
The pivot to TikTok comes after NFL viewership tanked by 7% in 2020 to 15.4 million viewers amid the pandemic, according to Nielsen. It was the league’s first viewership decline since 2017.
Diving into TikTok comments was uncharted territory for the NFL. The league had to craft a more “fun” and “playful” voice on the platform to seem authentic to fans.
To do that, the NFL only joined conversations where the league’s voice could add a “special element,” Trombetta said.
Take the Football Bros, a pair of middle school aged best friends and influencers with 2.3 million TikTok followers. Zach Darras and Carter Ramsey filmed videos of themselves throwing a football in their backyard to the tune of "Just the Two of Us" by Bill Withers. The videos went viral, surpassing millions of views and catching the NFL’s attention.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, the Carolina Panthers, the Cleveland Browns and the NFL’s official TikTok account all left comments on the videos. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers even dubbed himself in a duet video with the pair.
The NFL also “stitched” the clip — editing a video with footage from another clip — using audio from two NFL commentators saying, “That is the greatest catch I’ve ever seen in my life. There’s so much to talk about with this kid.”
First vid please no hate ??? Just the Two of Us - Grover Washington, Jr.
Darras and Ramsey later partnered with the league to be featured in NFL commercials, in an example of how influencers and user generated content are becoming integral to brand creative.
“It gave everybody a feeling of nostalgia,” AJ Curry, senior manager of social content at the NFL, said. “It was something we were able to latch on to with our clubs. It helps [kids] feel confident, and like this is something they want to keep doing, or look to it as a future job.”
Kids aren’t the only TikTok users who might get an unexpected NFL comment. School teacher Ms. Sutherd was challenged by her students to get an NFL team and actor Jack Black to comment on one of her TikTok videos. More than a dozen NFL teams responded to her plea — and Black even joined in.
“Whether you have one follower or a million followers, you have the same opportunity to go viral,” Robbie Levin, manager of media partnerships at TikTok, said. “It encourages people to keep creating, to collaborate and to always be thinking about what the next trend is.”
The NFL’s partnership with TikTok stretches beyond the comments section.
The league launched its official TikTok account in 2019 as part of a multi-year partnership with the platform. On Super Bowl Sunday, the NFL and TikTok will host a virtual tailgate on the platform as well as an on-site event with a performance by Miley Cyrus for the 7,500 vaccinated health care workers invited by the NFL to attend the game.
“Historically users haven't expected to see brands have a presence in comment sections,” Levin said. ”On TikTok, brands have really rewritten the rules.”