Get to know Brian Rolapp.
The chief operating officer of NFL Media is 41, a Mormon, a Brigham Young grad, checks Twitter before he does anything else in the morning, and you’ve probably never heard of him. But you need to know Brian Rolapp. As the NFL approaches its 95th season, Rolapp’s going to be among the handful of most important people charting the course of all things NFL as the game turns 100 and beyond. His importance will be not only determining the course of NFL Network as the successor to retiring president/CEO Steve Bornstein, but also in innovative new media ventures.
Rolapp is behind the invention of a new media tool the NFL will launch in August called NFL Now, which will be able to customize your NFL consumption to your favorite team, your fantasy team, your favorite NFL Films stuff from its vast vault—so that every day, multiple times, you’ll be able to check back to see the latest from all sources NFL.
Mostly, Rolapp seems exactly what Roger Goodell wants in his senior staff: a guy who respects tradition but isn’t married to it, loves new ideas and seeks new ways to keep the NFL on the cutting edge of how fans consume media.
“That’s one of the reasons that I like working here,” Rolapp told me in a recent two-hour meeting. “I think it’s one of the reasons for the success of the league. I have this saying with my guys: ‘Only the paranoid survive.’ You evolve or die. There is no resting on your laurels here, because the minute you do that you are in jeopardy. Roger’s very good about instilling that.”
To that end, Rolapp and Goodell take a trip each year, usually in August. They go to Silicon Valley to try to stay current with new technology. We discussed that, and other NFL media news.
The MMQB: The media world has changed, but TV obviously is your first priority.
Rolapp: The NFL is such a powerful entity, and it was really built on media. Pete Rozelle figured out long ago the power of television to build the sport. How do you create content for the predominant media platform of the day? In the old days it was television. Now it’s a lot more complicated than that. We always say, ‘It’s not old media and new media. It’s just media.’ You need to understand how the fans are consuming content and how they’re spending their time. You need to find out a way with your partners to deliver it to them. The secret of our sport is that we have all of these great media partners broadcasting games, promoting the games. It’s not just one. It’s CBS. It’s Fox. It’s NBC. It’s ESPN. It’s NFL Network. It’s DirecTV. And now, increasingly it’s things like Twitter, Microsoft, Verizon.
The MMQB: Why NFL Now?
Rolapp: Technology in all these things we’re talking about is a priority. NFL Now is a personalized video network that exists on any device you have. So you log in and say, ‘I like the Browns,’ and essentially you’ll have video content that’s customized and available to you, from NFL Films content, from news and highlights, to your fantasy players; you’ll have customized highlights for your fantasy players. It’s essentially embracing video and mobile, which is where the world is going. So we think that initiative is a really important one that we’ll continue to build and spend a lot of time on. The goal was to give fans access, wherever they are, to the NFL video—whether new or historic—personalized to them. That was the goal. It didn’t matter what device they used, a smart phone or iPad or smart TV, on a desktop computer. And NFL Films stuff … You can search for whatever you want, and finally we can mine that treasure trove that Steve and Ed Sabol built for 40 years.
The MMQB: How do you get your news?
Rolapp: My news source—and I’m just a focus group of one—my routine is I check Twitter first to figure out what’s going on. I look at that, then I look at some of the other news feeds that I have, and my email for things like ratings on the NFL Network, and then I get to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times. It’s all on my tablet. The newspapers are delivered to my office, but essentially I put my feet on them. They serve different purposes. They’re coasters for my Diet Coke at lunch. Then there’s other sites that I’ll go to. There’s Tech Crunch for example. All Things D—which has become ReCode. Mashable I’ll do. I do the football things. I do your site a lot. I’ll look at Pro Football Talk. So I go sort of general news, to industry/media news, to football industry news. Then in between is all the stuff internal—ratings from the network, ratings from the games before—all the internal sorts of things that I look at.
The MMQB: Where’s the growth in your business going to come from now?
Rolapp: In the NFL, there’s really two things when it comes to media. There’s the live games, which are as popular as ever. But there’s also a lot of growth in where a lot of these digital platforms and television platforms are fueling, and that’s what happens outside of the game—the Monday-Saturday throughout the week and in the offseason. Whether it’s people coming to get injury reports or getting what happened at practice, it’s getting the previews of the games, it’s the fantasy players. And in the offseason, the combine is as big as it’s ever been. Free agency is an event itself. The draft is on two networks and out-rates playoff games for the NBA on television. Training camp is getting bigger. There is no offseason.
The MMQB: What’s highest on your radar right now?
Rolapp: I think this new Thursday night package and making that work. This partnership with CBS is important. Thursday night football started as eight games on NFL Network, then it went to 13, and we really wanted to make sure that we thought this extra prime-time night of games could work competitively, could work from a schedule standpoint, could work from a fan’s standpoint, and we’re convinced it does. Some say, ‘Well, you can’t simulcast a game on two networks, that’s never been done before.’ Or, ‘You can’t do a short-term deal, that’s never been done before.’ We thought, ‘Well, no, we could.’ This is about getting more fans exposed to Thursday Night Football.”
The MMQB: Who will watch the game on NFL Network if they’re already on the bigger CBS station?
Rolapp: I don’t know. If it’s one person, I don’t want them to get lost because they can’t find it. If he’s conditioned to go to NFL Network, that’s fine. It might be one. It might be a million. You have two voices. Like with the draft: Some like Mike Mayock. Some like Mel Kiper. Well, don’t just give them one, give them both.
The MMQB: What is the future of NFL Network? Does it stay in L.A. or does it eventually come to the East Coast, to the NFL Films’ home in New Jersey?
Rolapp: We haven’t really looked actively at moving. It’s an expensive proposition. We’ll look at it. There’s a lot of advantages to being in L.A. There’s great access to the people you need to run a network—producers to talent and everything else. There are no immediate plans to move it, but there are no sacred cows. . . . There are very good arguments for moving it East—location to management, location to players. You have a concentration of teams. All of that is in there. It’s really down to, does that outweigh the cost it would take to do that? It’s really a business decision more than anything. One day will we have a team in L.A.? Will we have a stadium in L.A.?
The MMQB: What about the network itself? What do you want to see improve?
Rolapp: I think we’re happy with what’s working, but we can improve. There are so many alternatives now to get football and NFL information. We as a network need to find how we’re different. In my mind, it comes down to a few things. It starts with, we’ve got the greatest brand in sports, and that needs to be embraced in everything we do. Second: We really need to become the players’ and the coaches’ network. If that’s a place they want to watch, if that’s a place they want to be, if that’s a place they show up, the fan will know that. Third is providing inside access that no one else can provide. If we can do that, then we can deliver on not only what fans want, but it differentiates us from everyone else, and that’s who we should be. So that means that we’re re-looking at all of the programming. In this day and age you need to have programming that matters. I think in the future, there’s going to be, at best, 50 television networks that matter. At best. You better be one of them.
The MMQB: What do you do in Silicon Valley when you and Roger Goodell visit?
Rolapp: We go to a lot of tech companies. A lot of the big ones that you’ve heard of. Then we try to get a handful of people you’ve never heard of before. There’s a move in Silicon Valley—they understand the power of content and the power of our content. Maybe five years ago they weren’t sure if it was necessary yet.
The MMQB: What do you take away from there? Give me an example.
Rolapp: Take a Green Bay Packers game—something like 25 million people will watch that. Well, the internet can’t sustain that right now. We were at a very prominent Silicon Valley company that basically showed us how one day it will, and that day is right around the corner. If 35 million people go to watch that game on the internet right now, it would crash. Broadcast is different because it’s one-to-many. Internet is one-to-one, and the pipe just fills out. There is this [Intel founder] Andy Grove quote, ‘There’s a fundamental rule in technology that whatever can be done will be done.’ It’s a healthy perspective for us because we have to plan for the day and understand that whatever you think technology can do, it will do.”
The MMQB: Will games on free TV ever go away?
Rolapp: Look, we have built a very good thing here by making NFL football available to as many people as possible. I don’t see free TV going away.
The MMQB: Why is putting highlights on Twitter a good idea? Wouldn’t the networks be against that?
Rolapp: By having video on Twitter, it’s smart in giving fans what they want, but it’s also a good business proposition because it’s a sponsor for us. This is actually a way to make our business grow. By putting more of this content out there, the fan wins, and the advertisers win. You might be away from your television or you might decide that it wasn’t important to watch the Giants game, because maybe they’re not as competitive as you wanted them to be. When we actually tweet out that there’s a highlight of Eli Manning, you’re going to go back and watch that game. There’s all sorts of data that shows that too, where people forget that something’s on television and someone tweets out that they’re watching this, and then people go and they watch because they forgot about it or they recorded it. So it’s a way to get back in front of people.
The MMQB: You’re getting about $1 billion a year from DirecTV for Sunday Ticket, and that expires at the end of this season. Will you renew with DirecTV?
Rolapp: I think that’s a concept that is tried and true. There’s something for everyone there. DirecTV has been a really good partner. We’ve only really had one partner when it comes to this. They’ve been great. We’re right now in an exclusive negotiating period with them, and we’re talking to them about it. I think they have every intent to renew, and I think we have every intent to see that it works out. We haven’t reached the point [of a deadline] yet.
The MMQB: Is there any danger, as Mark Cuban says, of killing the sacred cow?
Rolapp: Like I said to you, only the paranoid survive. So, yeah, there’s always danger of killing the sacred cow. The trick is not allowing your concern for killing the sacred cow to paralyze you, and embracing change. There’s that other quote, I can’t remember who said it, it basically said if you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevancy even less.