3 Business Development Lessons that the NFL can Teach Higher Education

As an avid (or should I say rabid) fan of the National Football League, I pay a lot of attention to the business moves my favorite teams make during the offseason. Their primary mission is to expand their markets and gain competitive advantage in advance of the upcoming season. A similar planning process takes place every year in the executive offices of every higher learning institution in the country. Both organizations compete internationally to have transparent access to the best and brightest prospects available. Although they seek similar outcomes, the NFL has been much more successful in developing and marketing to its stakeholders.

There are three business development lessons that higher education institutions can learn from the NFL that can help them increase the number of quality professionals being delivered to the marketplace.

1. Spread Your Business Support Network Far and Wide

No single organization can provide all of the products, services, and support necessary to establish and grow a multi-national organization. Since its formation in 1920 with eleven teams, the NFL has grown to thirty-two teams that are worth roughly a billion dollars each. A primary driver of this growth has been a focus on systemic workforce development and building an international network of business partners.

Not–for-profit iconic partners like Pop Warner’s Little Scholars provides youth football and cheer & dance programs for over 425,000 members from ages five to sixteen across forty-two states and several countries around the world. The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) estimates that between 60% and 70% of all NFL players began their careers playing Pop Warner Football. The quality and depth of your network will ultimately determine the long-term success of your organization.

2. Sell a Long-Term Vision . . . Not Short-Term Tasks

As children, we all had visions of what we wanted to be when we grew up. These dreams usually came either from the influences of people that came into our lives or from exposure to images in movies or on TV.  No one did a better job of marketing the dream of becoming a professional football player better than the NFL, which effectively connected being selected to play in the NFL with achieving “supreme manhood.” Most every man-child since the dawn of time has been drawn to “feats” that convey strength and courage.

Higher education institutions, in general, have always done a good job of marketing the value of a college education for its own sake and, until recently, this has been a very successful albeit passive strategy. The current economic realities suggest that the age of the academic generalist is over and that the future will belong to the specialist. There will always be that 20% of the population that will automatically be motivated to excel in the college environment. The remaining 80% will be motivated by seeing a clear path between earning a college degree and having a successful career. College professors become dream enablers vs. taskmasters.

3. Always Provide Ample Opportunities to Showcase Skills

Making difficult choices among many qualified prospects that appear to have similar credentials is a classic recruiting dilemma. We all know that anyone can look great “on paper,” but the real challenge is knowing whether a key prospect will perform as well in the real world. The NFL has been very effective at not only developing superior prospects but also “culling” the herd to identify the best of the best. In late winter of every year ESPN broadcasts an in-person, invitation-only event that offers NFL prospects the opportunity to perform and compete in six key performance measures (the 40-yard dash, the bench press, the vertical jump, the broad jump, the 3-cone drill, and the shuttle run) in the presence of all NFL scouting and team decision-makers. Because this event is so well publicized and the requirements seem so achievable, it fosters the belief that the dream is within reach of just about anyone.


  1. “NFL Regional Combines Are Working” by Jack Bechta, National Football Post, May 16, 2012:http://sports.yahoo.com/news/nfl-regional-combines-working-200040813–nfl.html
  2. NFL Scouting Combine: http://www.nfl.com/combine/workouts
  3. Pop Warner Little Scholars, Inc: http://www.popwarner.com/
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I am a serial high-tech entrepreneur with expertise in developing new markets (discovering, developing and scaling business ventures with high potential). Subject matter expert in Decision Management Systems, Complex Sales, Advanced Analytics, Cognitive Computing, Systems Integration, Product Development and Sales Team Enablement. Recently enjoyed In-region global market development experience across six markets including Hong Kong, Philippines, Africa, Canada, LATAM, and Brazil. I enjoy pursuing high risk/high reward business opportunities that offer a path to improved skills and knowledge.
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