Engagement: What Schools Can Learn From the NFL

Parental engagement has been shown to positively impact student outcomes, but in an era of school choice where  parents have many alternatives to consider for their child’s education, schools have to first attract families before they can engage them.

Historically, many families chose where to live based on the reputation of the district. But the introduction of school choice has led to declining enrollment for many District-run neighborhood schools as parents lose faith due to poor performance or a lack of program options.

Says Chicago Public School District Chief Forrest Claypool, “Parents … don’t really care about neighborhood enrollment boundaries — they care about quality choices for their children.”

Many alternative education options such as online programs and charter schools understand this, and have become adept at communicating to prospective families the quality choices they have to offer. They recognize that they are their own best advocate, so while they remain true to the district objectives they also work hard to communicate their own. This marketing model has roots in the House of Brands marketing strategy utilized by the NFL.

On the surface comparing school districts to the NFL seems a bit of a stretch, but take a closer look and you’ll find that they aren’t all that different. Like districts the NFL represents several entities, each with its own unique brand representing the community in which it resides. Like districts the NFL has groups of constituents (fans) passionate about their individual teams. And like districts the NFL sets rules and regulations to govern the organization as a whole, while each team (or school) has their own policies for outreach and engagement.  

The NFL is filled with unique brands, just like school districts. By following their marketing strategy school districts can work with the schools in its community to reach prospective families, without compromising the identity of the multiple school brands that are part of that district.


There are 32 teams in the NFL, each of which has their own identity. Apparel, signage and even memorabilia draw on their own unique logo, color scheme, core values and traditions to promote themselves among their fan base. The number 12 jersey in Seattle to represent the “12th teammate” is a great example of this. So are the cheese hats of Green Bay. Of the 32 teams in the NFL only Seattle has a 12th man and only Green Bay fans wear hats resembling cheese. Both teams are part of the NFL, but you’ll never confuse the two.

Schools in the same district need to differentiate themselves in this manner to attract new families and instill pride in existing ones. Parents want options, and if all schools are sending the same message parents can’t effectively choose which is best for their child. Schools need to identify the key questions parents ask when looking for a school, and provide answers to those questions in their messaging.

Some examples to consider include the school’s core values, the curriculum, and what teachers or students say about their experience with the school. Most importantly, how do the answers to these questions set your school apart from other schools?

Maybe your school has attained a certification for a particular curriculum. Maybe your PTO has been recognized for its achievements. Or maybe community partnerships give your students support both inside and outside the classroom. By clearly defining who you are and how you are different you can build a recognizable brand that helps parents understand the opportunities you can provide to their children.


The NFL has mastered content delivery, making football games so accessible you won’t miss them unless you choose to. From local channels to cable/satellite, streaming to social media, you can watch football or get football news virtually anywhere, for all of the NFL’s 32 teams. In other words, consistent and relevant content is available wherever the viewer wants it, however they choose to view it. This not only allows people to dictate how they get their football, but establishes a level of confidence among fans that the NFL has them covered for any and all teams they represent.

Parents don’t often get the option to dictate how they want their education news, either from the school itself or from the district regarding the school “team” they follow. This leaves them frustrated with both the content they receive and the method of delivery, which prevents them from fully engaging with either the school or the district. This disconnect can be remedied simply by using the available technology to increase the number of platforms parents can use to find information.

Digital mediums have made it easy to share information, which makes them effective provided the information is accurate. Therefore, it’s imperative that schools make use of the digital space available to them, such as websites and social media, to tell their story, or risk having it told for them.

Says Eric Sheninger, Educator and Author, “If others are expressing stories about your school or district in that space, it will be difficult to counter any ramifications if that school or district is not invested in that space, as well,” (EducationDIVE, 2017). By being proactive with digital media schools can control their own narrative.


The NFL may have started as a sports league, but it has evolved to an entertainment company. From branded television networks to podcasts to a series of Fantasy-style games, which allow fans to access and participate in the world of football, the NFL has capitalized on multiple ways to engage their audience.

Football fans may not be calling the plays, but they can offer their input by commenting on Twitter or “drafting” their own team. Data collected from fan feedback is often discussed on multiple shows and fantasy forums, giving fans the impression that someone is listening. This effectively creates a community among the fan-base, which drives support back to the organization.

Schools and school districts are becoming more adept at pushing out information, but they need to become adept at pulling it in. This two-way communication is the foundation of engagement.

As discussed in our blog Engagement vs. Involvement; Building An Inclusive School Community, many parents wait for cues from the school to get involved. Schools therefore need to make sure they’re offering those cues. Ask parents what their expectations are for their children. How can the school and parents work together to meet those expectations?

Equally important, how can schools encourage more parental engagement? Whether it be the PTO, fundraisers, volunteer opportunities, continuing education programs or community partnerships, there are a variety of ways parents can contribute to or provide feedback on the school’s activities. By making parents feel like part of the school you will gain their trust, which translates into support.


Football fans wear their pride, literally. Hats, jerseys, socks and even bumper stickers are constant reminders of the love people feel for their football teams. And even if the team gear doesn’t explicitly mention the NFL, fans recognize individual teams as a part of that organization.

Now more than ever schools need to build a vibrant community, and providing branded items is the perfect opportunity to engage your families and market your school at the same time. Logos, slogans or special events that define your core values can be put on a variety of merchandise to be proudly displayed by your existing families.

You may consider getting those families involved in the process for additional buy-in. Ask them what they love about the school or what image comes to mind when they think of the school’s mission. Create a design based on that feedback, or ask students to submit drawings a final design is chosen from. The goal isn’t to create the next Nike swoosh campaign, but to come up with a visual representation of your school that enrolled families can share with prospective families.


As written in the article ‘What Marketers Can Learn from the NFL’s Success,’ “There is a reason the sporting public never stops talking about football. It is because the NFL will not let them.”

The NFL has a 16-week regular season beginning in September, with four weeks of ‘pre-season’ in August and another six weeks of playoffs running through January. In February, they host a combine, where prospective players showcase their skills, in the hopes they will be drafted to a team come April. Training begins in May, and the whole thing brings us back to the pre-season. Year-round something is happening in the NFL, so there is always relevant content to share.

Much like the NFL schools have a “season” where most of their communication will take place. But news and events arise in the off-season as well, meaning schools can and should offer parents a steady stream of relevant content to keep them informed. Examples include what is being done to prepare for the coming year, how schools and parents can work together, and the results of those partnerships as they relate to student success.

The goal is to communicate often enough that you stay connected with students, parents and the community but don’t suffocate them with information. Therefore, communication should be frequent but also relevant (see our April Blog, Communication: The Cornerstone of Family Engagement for more tips on relevant communication).

Though there is a balance to be found in frequency and tone schools need to remember communication should facilitate engagement. In that regard, have fun. Make a splash. Build pride. Your ‘brand’ should be seen, heard and felt.


Every team in the NFL has a Facebook, Twitter and Instagram account, with some also using Snapchat. These mediums are used to share schedules and stories, and to engage with fans by giving them a forum to communicate with them and offering chances to win prizes.

Schools have traditionally used newsletters to communicate, but increasingly parents are skimming through it and missing important information because they can’t easily find the notices that pertain to them. Short blasts on social media that can be read on the go are more likely to be read at all, so schools need to shift their messaging from a lengthy “information dump” methodology to a more “concise update” methodology.

Additionally, schools need to use social media for more than just sharing news. These platforms are designed for interaction, so interact. Ask parents to provide feedback on how the school is doing. Invite students to submit real world examples of things they learned about in class, and offer branded apparel as a prize for the most creative example submitted. Encourage the community to get involved at the school. There are countless ways to capitalize on interaction social media can provide if schools embrace it.


Partnerships can help a brand expand its reach, which is part of the reason the NFL is so accessible, so engaging, and so popular. Currently they boast partnerships with video game developers, satellite TV, phone companies, social media and search engines, all of which allow them to extend their reach beyond their core fan base.

In addition to these corporate sponsorships the NFL and each of its teams have charitable partnerships that give back to the community and help improve the lives of their fans, and which also gives them a positive brand image.

Schools have often embraced partnerships for things like fundraising or field trips, but there are many more ways to interact with the community to establish that positive brand image. Host a “marketplace” night where local businesses can set up booths to advertise or sell goods, giving students a glimpse of what each business does. Ask businesses to use student artwork in advertising campaigns or host a quarterly art show display that could draw customers and give students a project to work on. Or invite them to judge the science fair or other extra-curricular competitions where they can interact with families.

School families are a great customer base for local businesses, and many would be grateful for the opportunity to meet and interact with families who could become customers. Many would also be happy to contribute to the schools’ mission beyond just donating money or sponsoring events.


The NFL has had its fair share of negative press lately, from conspiracies to health problems to protests, yet the game is more popular than ever. Why? The focus always remains on their core product; the game itself.

Education has had its share of controversies over the years, and like football everyone has an opinion about what’s working, what isn’t and how to make changes. Regardless of the noise in the industry schools need to focus on what attracted families to their door in the first place; their ability to provide for their students.

All the marketing and branding activities discussed here are nothing without your core product: education. Stay true to your core values, strive to engage families with two-way communication, and provide a safe, fun environment. Families will appreciate your consistency and commitment, and respond in kind.


Education has been under the microscope for the past several years, first with No Child Left Behind, then Common Core, and now School Choice. The industry isn’t perfect, and the districts trying to carry out these various mandates have their hands full. Though districts need to support the Branded House that defines all the schools in their district, a Branded House strategy of marketing to new families may not be the best option.

Each school needs to tell its own story. With parents getting much savvier on understanding educational options for their child, it’s time for school districts to change their marketing strategy to stay competitive. By mimicking the NFL and adopting a House of Brands strategy, schools have more direct influence over and relationships with current and prospective families.

Does your school/district follow a Branded House or House of Brands strategy? What do you like or dislike about the method they use for marketing to current and prospective families? What would you change?



Donachie, P.- Branding is Key to Standing Out in a School Choice Environment (2017) EducationDIVE (http://www.educationdive.com/news/branding-is-key-to-standing-out-in-a-school-choice-environ ment/446247/)

Neely, A. – What Marketers Can Learn from the NFL’s Success (2016)  (http://www.dmnews.com/customer-experience/what-marketers-can-learn-from-nfls-success/article/521709/)

Rampton, J. 6 Things the NFL’s Focus on Fan Engagement Can Teach Small Businesses (https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/250220)

Richards, J.S. & Perez, J. (2017) Chicago’s Neighborhood Schools Hurting as Choice Abounds (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-chicago-schools-choice-neighborhood-enrollment-met-20160108-story.html)