Vikings' online strategy scores big even if team doesn't
Eden Prairie, Minn. -- If pro football kept score in website clicks instead of touchdowns, the Minnesota Vikings might already have a championship trophy.
The team ranks among the worst in the NFL on the field, yet it draws millions of viewers to its Vikings Entertainment Network, an in-house media factory that cranks out three TV shows and five radio programs a week and runs a popular website.
While the network can’t block for Adrian Peterson or add zip to a Christian Ponder throw, the media machine is becoming a major part of the team’s business model, generating viewers and, potentially, ticket sales. The site is drawing viewers and money in ways a five-win team would never expect.
The Vikings consistently show up the top 10 among NFL teams for web traffic, said Brian Harper, the Vikings network executive producer.
"We're very video heavy. In 2012, we were number one in video in the league" and second last year only to San Francisco, Harper said.
"Content is king and we realize that," he added. "Our focus is not only to provide the type of content, you know like press conferences and all the X's and O's type stuff for football fans. But also that behind the scenes type access, stuff that you can't get anywhere else."
It's hard to separate luck and strategy, but the new Vikings stadium came along at the perfect moment to help springboard the team into the Internet age.
The football club boosted its website with new virtual stadium fly-throughs, a live construction webcam, even legislative coverage. Team officials say the content is drawing in fans and non-fans alike, before during and after the football season.
The team typically tacks a beer or car ad on to the front of its online video. Web traffic helped the Vikings sign Xfinity as a sponsor.
The Vikings won't talk dollars and cents on their website strategy. However, in a 2011 profile of the Vikings web operation, the website contenly.com reported: "By the time the season ended in January 2010, the new Vikings.com had served 35 million page views, including 4.5 million video views, a significant increase that led to a staggering 822,569 ticket-related clicks that season."
No doubt those numbers have jumped the past few years, though sports media observers think online revenue pales in comparison to television and radio rights for now.
Vanderbilt University sports economist John Vrooman estimates 40 percent of NFL revenue – about $5 billion to $6 billion a year -- still comes from TV rights for games.
Still, Vrooman says revenue from the NFL Ventures division, which includes content providers like the NFL Network and NFL.com, has grown to nearly match ticket and stadium revenues, which he pegs at about 20 percent of league revenue.
More sports teams are taking notice and, like the Vikings, are literally running their own shows.
MLB.com has become one of the main sources of professional baseball news. College conferences are running their own cable networks. The first appearance of new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was on Vikings.com, and TV footage of a Super Bowl scouting trip by the NFL came from the Vikings.
Teams like the online side of the business, because its money they can keep for their own, instead of sharing with rivals, like they do with TV and merchandising rights.
"The model looks just like a media model," said media consultant Ken Doctor.
"Where does media get its money? It gets membership and subscriptions, and it gets advertising," Doctor said. "In a sense, these companies are becoming media, and really using the same revenues, in addition to selling sports directly like they always have."
It's a familiar pattern, driven by the web, said Minnesota State University Mankato sports economist Phil Miller. It's similar to how classified advertising migrated from newspapers to Craisglist and other sites, he added.
Media watchers wonder if new sports team web content will be as disruptive for mainstream media -- supplanting at least some traditional sports coverage controlled largely by TV, radio and newspapers.
They also worry that self-generated content from sports teams could color public perception, particularly on controversial issues like taxpayer stadium subsidies or the debate over concussions and player safety in the NFL.
Credibility is the biggest question with the team sites, said Doctor.
"When it comes to the crunch of bad news happening, or you have terrible seasons, how is it reported?" he asked. "Any time you have any kind company, including newspaper companies, reporting on themselves, it raises questions."
Vikings officials say those questions aren't for them to answer. They're interested in building their brand, and particularly their local business, apart from the National Football League.
"We're not going to make any apologies for having great positive content about our teams and our players," said Erin Swartz, a marketing and digital strategy manager for the Vikings.
"That's who we are and that's what we serve up to our fans, and they know that," she said. "They know that that's what they're getting from us."