The NFL: The Most Agile Sports League in America

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The NFL The Most Agile Sports League in America

October 1, 2012

For football fans across America, last week was a chaotic whirlwind. From last week’s Monday Night Football Seattle Seahawks – Green Bay Packers finale, to the return of the league’s professional referees last Thursday – this year the NFL has set out to prove that it is indeed the most agile sports league in America.

If you’re not a football fan, you’re probably a little confused as to what I’m talking about. See this year, the Referee Union and the NFL were not able to come to an agreement on salary and pension plans. As a result of the slow negotiations, the referees decided to hold out his season, electing to not officiate any games. Normally a gutsy move like this causes the league to capitulate to their demands or shorten the season – hurting the players and the fans. However, the NFL and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, had an alternative plan: instead of canceling or running an abridged season once the two sides could come to an agreement, the commissioner decided to use replacement officials.

Regardless of your view on the quality of the referees, this move was something that had never before been done. It allowed players to keep to their training camp schedules and fans to enjoy football regardless of a strike. As the season commenced the league actively listened to players, coaches, and fans to see how well their experiment with these replacements was faring. Essentially, the NFL had ripped a page out of the agile marketer’s handbook, whether they knew it or not. The league set up feedback loops as a means to test, refine and then retest their replacement referee experiment.

After last Monday night’s game disaster call, one that no doubt reside on ESPN Classic for all eternity, where the outcome came down to a single poor decision, players, coaches and fans had had enough. The league’s experiment was not working: “It was a noble experiment, but I think ultimately a failed experiment, from what we’ve seen,” said Minnesota punter Chris Kluwe last week. As a result the NFL worked quickly to negotiate a deal with the referees and two days later, they were back.

If you think about it, this experiment the NFL underwent was not all that dissimilar from what agile marketers go through regularly. Things change, whether it’s product requirements or referees on strike, either way organizations need to react. In both situations, organizations try to adapt by conducting various small scale experiments. Marketers work in sprints for this very purpose. The short duration of a sprint allows them to look back at the tests run, and decide what’s working and what isn’t. In the case with the NFL, their sprint was three weeks of the regular season without the normal referees. By mid-last week they decided it was time to review the information and change tactics. Now with the proper referees in place, the NFL will again be actively listening to feedback as they look to see what other tweaks will need to be made to ensure that they are presenting the highest quality product they possibly can.

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