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Winskie: The NFL — More Than Just a Game

The NFL lockout is over and brands should be as thrilled as the fans.

After months of tense negotiating about how to divvy up more than $9 billion in revenue generated by the NFL, players and owners finally came to an agreement that makes everybody happy.

The Players Association released a videowith NFL players personally thanking fans for their patience and support.

The players seem genuinely relieved that it’s all over. But maybe it’s the brands and marketers who should be breathing the biggest sighs of relief.

There was a lot more hanging in the balance than just the $3 billion in advertising revenue that football generates each season. Few franchises present better opportunities for brands and marketers to capture the hearts and minds of consumers than the NFL.

Lately, though, conventional wisdom would have us all believe that effective marketing is now all about social media, Facebook, Twitter, QR codes or whatever new mobile, social, digital device or network is going to be invented this morning (championed this afternoon and considered obsolete tomorrow.) With that mindset, it’s easy to think the NFL season doesn’t really matter much, what with its deeply traditional, commercially powered events (translation: football games) and anachronistically transactional consumer engagement (commercials).

But the fact is that 106 million people around the world watched last year’s Super Bowl. That’s a lot of tweetups.

The NFL’s audience is enormous and diverse.

Porter Novelli ConsumerStyles, which tracks the habits of more than 10,000 consumers nationwide, reveals 61 percent of those who watch NFL football are male, 39 percent female, with an ethnic breakdown that evenly mirrors the general population. Seventy one percent are white, 13 percent are black and 11 percent are Hispanic. And just because football is driven by traditional media doesn’t mean its audience is. Fans are also more likely to use mobile apps, mobile devices for instant messages and read newspapers online.

When news of the lockout’s resolution broke, you could see more than 72,000 Twitter mentions in just 24 hours, almost all overwhelmingly positive, according to PN’s Atlanta-based Live Command Center. You couldn’t ask for a bigger or more engaged audience than this. Keywords like “greed” and “greedy” appeared in only 186 mentions, while the words “glad” and “excited” were tweeted more than 2,300 times. The explosion of social media activity following the announcement underscores the breadth and depth of consumers’ connection to the game, the men who play it and the organizations that make it possible.

At a time when the key for a brand’s success is building deeper relationships and stronger emotional connections with consumers, the end of the player lockout and the start of the preseason should matter as much to the brands who don’t work with the NFL as the ones that do.

For brands, football is not just about the spectacle of the Super Bowl and the playoffs, or even the ritual of watching on Sunday afternoons. It is not just airtime and game time.

The NFL season creates an emotional space where consumers welcome brands and see them as part of the experience. It’s not like sneaking targeted messaging onto the margin of somebody’s Facebook page. Football operates in an established and natural environment where brands holistically support the passion fans feel for the game. The NFL not only presents this emotional space for brands—it also protects and strengthens it. And that’s a big win for everybody.

So as we all gear up for the August 11th start of the preseason, the question “Are you ready for some football?” is as exciting to answer for brands as it is for fans.

Julie Winskie is the Global President, Clients of Porter Novelli PR. Its clients include McDonalds, Hewlett-Packard, Reckitt-Benheiser, Merck and Capital one. Winskie is a participant in Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit, a member of the inaugural PR jury for the 2009 Clio Awards and a jurist for the 2010 Cannes Lions PR Awards.