Former Dolphins Creative Director Says NFL Schedule Release Videos Became Their Super Bowl

    NFL schedule release videos have exploded in popularity, and the production budgets have followed suit. But how did we reach this point?

    Not long ago, the NFL’s schedule release was a minor offseason footnote. The only people who cared were players, coaches, fans eager to purchase tickets, and reporters looking to book travel for the next season.

    But now, the schedule release is a full-blown thing, an offseason tentpole that’s barged its way into the sports culture zeitgeist. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the NFL, which found a way to monetize a de facto job fair, has made its work schedule equally relevant.

    At the center of it all are the often hilarious schedule-release videos and the creative teams working tirelessly to produce them. They’re as responsible as anyone for the exploding popularity of schedule releases, which have become significant drivers of ticket sales.

    For them, the schedule release is the most important day on the calendar. It’s their Super Bowl.

    NFL Schedule Release Videos: Humble Beginnings

    These days, NFL teams spend millions of dollars to produce schedule-release videos. Even the ones that don’t still spend weeks — sometimes months — planning and developing the final product.

    But just a decade ago, the idea was still in its infancy.

    “There was really nothing … Photo was king,” Jon Willey, whose decades of creative experience includes working for the Miami Dolphins throughout the 2010s, told Pro Football Network on Friday. “And then everything shifted to video.”

    Willey joined the Dolphins in 2014 and was tasked with rebuilding the creative and video departments. He is now the chief creative officer for BIG Creative, a consultation firm that works with sports and entertainment organizations.

    The Dolphins were at the forefront of NFL social media innovation in the mid-2010s, with Willey playing a key role.

    “When I got to the Dolphins in 2014, it was weirdly still early in social,” Willey said. “We were just getting ourselves out there on social media. The league was trying to catch up.”

    The horse is out of the barn with today’s schedule release videos. You have teams like the Chargers firing shots at every team on their schedule — especially the Chiefs.

    But in 2014, NFL social media departments still were learning to walk.

    “We were really cautious with our voice back then,” Willey said. ” … We wanted to be unique. And we wanted to figure out, ‘OK, what are things that we could do?’

    “Snapchat was new. We were flying to Google to meet with Google and Facebook and all these companies to understand how we can make an impact, first and foremost, in revenue, selling tickets.”

    Still, Willey and his “tight-knit team” in Miami wanted to push boundaries.

    “We were the kind of team that we wanted to push to the edge as far as we could and sometimes go over the edge with what we could and couldn’t do,” Willey said. “For us, from a social side … how many unique things we can create and push the envelope a little bit.

    “Not edgy-wise, but more unique content; we want to use these unique spaces. And schedule release was one of the interesting ways that we were able to innovate.”

    The Dolphins wanted to increase ticket sales and grow their social media presence. The natural result: Snapchat videos.

    “It was kind of last minute as the schedule was about to be released,” Willey said. “I remember creating these hand-drawn Snapchat things … and we just started making these funny videos.”

    To say that schedule release videos have evolved since then would be a dramatic understatement. Willey is simultaneously blown away and not surprised that we’ve reached this point.

    “It’s wild to me,” he said. ” … When we were first starting this and I was making funny little Snapchat drawings to commemorate each game or where we were traveling to, I would never think it would be at the point where it is today. But I’m also not surprised.”

    What’s the Goal?

    Well, the goal, obviously, is to make money. But there’s more to it than that.

    At its core, the NFL is an entertainment business. And to stay relevant, it must hook fans when they’re young.

    Reaching young fans where they spend most of their time — social media — is a crucial pillar of brand growth, but teams also know they can’t be fake. Today’s youth will see right through them.

    “The more you talk about how you increase your engagement on social with Gen Z, which is what we’re all trying to attract, the more you understand you have to be authentic with your voice,” Willey said. “And so, every team’s got an authentic voice.”

    Schedule release videos have become an effective tool in making NFL teams appear less like the money-hungry corporations they really are. They’ve imbued them with personality. The videos, along with a refreshing embrace of player personalities and the overall fan experience, have made the league seem less uptight.

    “We’ve loosened up a little bit on social,” Willey said. “And you can really tell the teams who have some autonomy in creative to make funny content.”

    But make no mistake: The goal is to make money by selling tickets.

    Dan August, the Rams‘ executive vice president of consumer revenue and strategy, recently told Sportico that schedule release day generates more ticket sales in 24 hours than the next three months combined.

    The strategy works.

    “It was a little crazy at the time to understand, ‘OK, how much is this driving ticket sales?'” Willey said. “But ultimately, when you bring it back, the fans are dying to know these schedules so they can start buying tickets for the season. So, that was a big driver in why we should create content for that.”

    The schedule release is a win-win. The team sees an uptick in ticket sales, the creatives get to experiment with new ideas.

    “How can we find what our voice is and how edgy we can be?” Willey said of the Dolphins’ strategy during his tenure. “It allows teams to try different things and see what sticks before (the season) starts. It offers you a chance to reach different audiences and see how they react.”

    Willey then referenced the Chargers, whom many consider the NFL’s best at creating schedule release videos.

    In this year’s edition, which was created using “The Sims,” the Chargers referenced Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and his superstar girlfriend, Taylor Swift.

    “The Swifties, who may not have known about the Chargers, now know about the Chargers,” Willey said.

    A Rare — But Important — Opportunity

    Social media teams deserve a lot of credit for schedule release videos, but not all of the credit. The videos are cross-departmental efforts, and there are many cooks in the kitchen.

    “People don’t quite understand the makeup of the creative teams and marketing teams — it’s everybody,” Willey said. “In this situation, I think the social teams and the creative team and the marketing teams — it’s really marketing-led — are saying, ‘Hey, this is a chance for us to have a lot of fun.'”

    Last week, The Athletic’s Diana Russini spoke to an NFL head coach who said his team’s facility was empty outside of creatives preparing for their “Super Bowl.”

    Willey agreed with that description, saying the schedule release has replaced the NFL Draft as the top offseason tentpole for creatives.

    “It became the Super Bowl,” Willey said. “Before, I would say the draft was the Super Bowl. When I started in ’14, everything was about the draft. … [The schedule release] has become the Super Bowl.”

    Working in the NFL doesn’t always lend itself to creativity. Much of the work is “regimented,” as Willey said. But the schedule release allows creatives to do what they do best: have fun.

    “This was one of those situations where your team would put in the extra time, because if you were given the autonomy as a creative team, you took it and ran,” Willey said. ” … Then, when it comes out, everybody’s sitting and looking at what everybody else did.”

    That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Far from it.

    Employees already have a lot on their plates, and schedule release videos demand extra work, especially if they’re backed by high budgets.

    “The big thing for us was how much bandwidth do our teams have?” Willey said. ” … You just finished draft, and then you’re prepping for all the players to report for minicamps, and then you’re prepping for the season. So, this became another thing to add to the bandwidth.

    “But the teams were doing it in such a way that it became this huge production and really evolved into something big.”

    Willey added: “It became an entirely new piece of content that you would get all of your teams focused on for potentially months in advance.”

    A New Era

    Let’s go back to the Chargers and their latest schedule release video.

    If you stick around to the end, you’ll notice a “Sims” version of Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker cooking in a kitchen. It’s an overt reference to Butker’s recent Benedictine College commencement speech, which has drawn immense criticism for its content about Pride activism and female empowerment — among other topics.

    Willey believes such a shot never would’ve been fired when he first started working on schedule release videos.

    “I don’t know if back in the day, a team would’ve thrown a Harrison Butker diss right in it like the Chargers did this year,” he said.

    Willey also believes the Butker reference is a clear sign of front-office involvement, which has increased around the NFL as schedule-release videos have become more important.

    ” … That was probably an ownership decision,” he said of the Chargers video. “(Dolphins owner) Stephen Ross was not very involved in creative, but some team owners [are].”

    Willey added: “When a CEO sees another team doing something, and you’re not, their first inclination is to say, ‘Why aren’t we doing this? We should be doing this.'”

    Willey said the schedule release paradigm shifted around 2016, sparking an “arms race.”

    “There was a push from leadership and ownership to just be unique, and let’s do something different so that we can drive engagement and traffic to social,” he said.

    Some teams, like the Chargers, pull no punches. Others, like the New England Patriots, play things relatively safe.

    “The Patriots, they’re not getting away with that. … They were very conservative,” Willey said.

    Whether teams are wise to dump a ton of money into schedule release videos is up for debate.

    However, for Wiley, a video that stands out is the 2023 offering from the Tennessee Titans, whose low-budget offering featured nothing more than Nashville vacationers clueless about the NFL.

    “I’m always drawn back to the Titans last year,” Willey said. “I think they actually gave permission for the other teams to not have to do cinematic, epic releases. It’s not that they gave the teams the license to be funny, because I think a lot of teams were being funny … but this really hit home.

    “There was a subtle brilliance in something so simple.”

    What Does the Future Hold?

    There’s a good chance that NFL schedule release videos one day will jump the shark — if they haven’t already. Just look at the Patriots, who spent the week providing wall-to-wall coverage of their video.

    First, the tease:

    Then the second tease:

    Then a third tease:

    Then the actual video:

    Then an onslaught of follow-up content:

    There’s nothing wrong with that. If anything, it’s kind of cool to see what goes into these videos.

    But is there any doubt that we’re nearing a time when the NFL will dedicate an entire week to schedule release coverage? We’ll probably get an hour-long special during which each team’s video debuts.

    And maybe that’s a good idea. It probably is. The videos, and the people who work on them, deserve that platform.

    For now, schedule release videos are funny, cool, and feel organic. The NFL should do whatever it takes to keep them that way.

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