Why is everyone tweeting “#NFLPartner #NFLGamePass” and why is it so weird? My 3 theories

Max Barry
6 min readSep 24, 2018

The 2018 NFL season has brought with it a barrage of awkward and out of place #NFLPartner #NFLGamePass sponsored tweets from prominent members of the football media. Pre-kickoff feeds have been flooded with tweets extolling the virtues of NFL GamePass — the NFL’s on-demand video service. They’re ham-fisted, to say the least, and look like this if you haven’t seen them:

Bill Barnwell, ESPN & ex-Grantland
Dan Orlovsky, that guy who ran out the back of the endzone that one time

People writing on the internet who hate the NFL and are suspicious of the media are normally water brained clowns who cut swooshes out of their socks. I’m not one of those people. I promise.

I do dislike the NFL. I think the product has declined as they’ve struggled to mint new stars, and — a lot more importantly — their ability to act like anything other than a collection of corporate ghouls in the face of social conscientiousness and debilitating head trauma is limited.

But the three reasons these Tweets concern me are to do with how damn weird they are.

They’re lazy to the point of being creepy

Someone is ghost writing these Tweets. I can’t confirm that, but the language being used just doesn’t fit with the author’s normal tone of voice.

“#NFLPartner #NFLGamePass” Tweets first appeared in the 2017 season. Field Yates, Mark Schlereth, and Peter King led the way with much shorter and more human Tweets:

#NFLPartner #NFLGamePass Wentz’s strike may have been topped by Hollins’ Backpack Kid celebration in the end zone on.nfl.com/WMygAu
Mark Schlereth (113 characters)

#NFLPartner #NFLGamePass replay shows us that Dez may have a future on Dancing with the Stars as he toe-taps this TD http://on.nfl.com/S1gDzh
Field Yates (117 characters)

There seems to have been a step up in quality control for 2018. Firstly, custom URLs for each poster (e.g. NFL.com/DanOrlovsky), the copy is much longer, and gone are Backpack Kid references. In are flowery, relentlessly upbeat platitudes (a hallmark of corporate marketing copy), which I’ve bolded in examples below. This pattern repeats itself across accounts, despite many of these writers having a much lighter tone in their own tweets. Also note the calls-to-action before the URL. They’re identical.

#NFLPartner #NFLGamePass shows how the Cowboys wasted no time opening up the scoring ... Textbook pitch and catch from the Cowboys. See more at http://NFL.com/BillBarnwell
Bill Barnwell (233 characters)

See on #NFLPartner #NFLGamePass why Jaguars’ WR Keelan Cole is quickly becoming a standout ... This great catch was a star-making moment. See more http://NFL.com/AdamSchefter
Adam Schefter (205 characters)

This is 2018 Twitter. Twitter subcultures are beyond self-aware and are spawning their own media empires (shout out Chapo and Desus & Mero). NBA Twitter is a riotous success I’m sure the NFL dearly covets. So why put this dry corporate mush in to the mouths of iconic voices? It’s so… uncool.

I’m not ignorant to, or outraged by, the existence of sponsored content or advertorials. I used to work in advertising. In 2014 I paid a social starlet on behalf of a brand $15,000 for a single Instagram post. I’m sure that number would be double in 2018. But there was always a push-and-pull between the message the paying client wanted (in this case, the paying client is for-sure 100%, slam dunk, the NFL) and the voice of the author.

Often the individual or their manager would negotiate a stepped rate with the advertiser: a straight copy and paste of ad copy to their timeline would be $X; the talent rewriting or adding their personality to it, $X + more.

By not negotiating with the talent to author the content themselves, or by not taking the time to double check tone, the NFL is being hopelessly lazy and/or cheap. Which is weird, because… they’re 👏🏻 the 👏🏻 NFL 👏🏻. You think they would have done something this prominent more thoroughly.

Sidenote: I think Dan Orlovsky is writing his own Tweets, but I’d also theorize he’s just doing #NFLPartner to fit in with the cool kids. Dunk Orlovsky! That’s 2 I got you with, my sweet endzone boy.

The Tweeters are selling themselves short. And 2018 is the worst time to be doing that

Big media organisations have spent a decade shuffling the byline in to retirement. Readers have spent a decade going the opposite way; seeking out personality-driven media companies. If you’re going to get funding for a media venture in 2018 it’s because you’re prioritising individuals, and putting them front and centre (on podcasts, on video, on live streams). The Athletic has $27m of venture funding based on that model. The Ringer partnered with HBO based on one individual (Bill Simmons), but then made it it’s mission to build a deep bench of new names (shout out Haley O’Shaughnessy, Micah Peters, and Kevin Clark).

Those writers’ personalities bleed beyond their employer’s website to their own platforms. Twitter and Instagram create rich color and texture about who that person is, that in turn makes us more engaged with what they’re doing on their employer’s website.

The stock of people is high right now (which isn’t universally great — see right wing provocateurs). So for these NFL writers to sell themselves so short, is just crushingly disappointing. They’re so nakedly sacrificing their voice one tweet a week for…? A product that the rest of Twitter despises.

92% of a quick straw sample really didn’t like GamePass

Like, for real. People hate NFL GamePass. This campaign’s goal is to swim upstream against that hate.

People shill crappy products all the time. That’s not new. But what if Bill Barnwell (a genius writer I cannot praise higher) promoted #NFLGamePass by using clips to support content from his articles? If Adam Schefter highlighted a play from a game he just covered on SportsCenter? It’s a more credible, organic fit. It shows the product in a better light too.

But most importantly… this is catastrophically compromising for the writers’ integrity

I don’t want to make a bad faith argument. I have a very generous belief in the ability of experienced writers to separate what they advertise from what they write about. I am not calling them “in the pocket” of the NFL. That’s too dramatic. But really, really smart media forecasters have long warned about this sort of stealth advertisement. Video games is an industry that’s struggled to deal with this, as the bedroom YouTuber has ascended the throne of critical conversation. This essay from Austin Walker is a brilliant dissection of the dangers of not disclosing an advertising placement.

It’s jarring when you hear a podcaster roll off an advert for the latest HBO show straight in to TV criticism, but at least there’s an element of disclosure. These words are paid for by ____. It’s a clear advertisement. These Tweets don’t pay the reader that courtesy. The “#NFLPartner” is an apologetic attempt to disclose the paid nature of the very Tweet it’s inside of. I checked many of the accounts mentioned in this story, and could not find a Tweet disclosing or explaining the arrangement of their #NFLPartner relationship.

These Tweets are paid for by the NFL. I concede the money for each Tweet might not be going directly to the individuals themselves. Field Yates, Barnwell and Schefter are tied to ESPN. The Tweets may be part of a deal ESPN have with the NFL as part of their extensive commercial ties. Ties that have already caused problematic exits for Bill Simmons (he alleges Rodger Goodell had a hand in his firing) and Jemele Hill, who departed after numerous clashes with dark forces.

Again, I don’t want to make a bad faith argument that their coverage could be compromised by commercial arrangements with the NFL. But these are murky waters sports writers (and political podcasters and culture critics, it must be said) are wading in to.

I reached out via Twitter DMs to accounts mentioned in this story, and did not hear back. I don’t say that to infer something sinister.

I’m on Twitter as DunkMadness. And if you put all my Tweets back-to-back on a shelf the spines spell out “Buy NFL GamePass”. Seriously. Follow me, you’ll see. Also, I’m looking for work. I could write for you, or a whole bunch of other skills. DMs are open.