The NFL is a $10 billion a year business and 2014 is shaping up to be the worst brand management year in its history. Few brands can survive the hits the NFL has taken.

Without rehashing details, the NFL has recently gone through several high-profile domestic and child abuse incidents, criminal behavior among its owners, bad locker room behavior, and a lawsuit filed by retired players claiming brain damage caused the hits they took while playing professional football. (And you may have noticed that yesterday DEA agents made surprise visits to at least three NFL team facilities while investigating the mishandling of prescription drugs!)

One of the results is that negative social media chatter has recently climbed to over 25% of all posts versus only 9% in 2013. For the first time, huge sponsors like Budweiser, PepsiCo, McDonald’s, P&G and Nike have expressed concerns. And in today’s 24/7 media cycle world, the risk is that more issues will surface and further tarnish the brand.

Business vs. Brand
Over the last five years, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has referenced “protecting the shield” (the NFL logo) as his #1 priority. However, in the past, and as demonstrated recently, the NFL has been more worried about the business of football rather than the brand experience. According to Marc Ganis, President of SportsCorp, “The integrity of the game requires fans to trust that the players on the field are trying to win. What the players do off the field is secondary”. Well said. As Ganis notes, the NFL has been very selective on what aspects of the shield they’ve protected.

From our perspective, “Protecting the Shield” should be a holistic brand effort that not only focuses on maintaining integrity on the field. The NFL brand’s meaning should include a clear commitment to upstanding player behavior both on and off the field, outstanding community relations and involvement, and setting clear policies dealing with poor player behavior and their consequences.

As we know, consumers form their associations based on intended and unintended brand communications. Great brands form strong, favorable and unique associations and can withstand some negative associations. Unfortunately, today’s 24/7 media cycle and social media platforms amplifies negative associations in a way that few brands have had to withstand in the past.

Brands sponsor the NFL because association with the brand helps elevate the sponsor’s status even further. When that relationship between the brand and consumer is at risk, the value of the sponsorship needs to be re-evaluated. Budweiser warned the NFL that they would carefully watch how the NFL responded to the domestic violence incidents.

What if companies like PepsiCo want to renegotiate their $2.3 billion 10 year sponsorship to include “make good” and “out clauses with penalties” in the face of additional negative impact? This may not be so farfetched. Recently, Southwest Airlines pulled out of a 20 year relationship with Sea World largely because of the negative associations the movie “Blackfish” have had on the Sea World brand, and, by association, on Southwest Airlines.

At a local level, Radisson Hotels has already pulled out of their sponsorship agreement with the Minnesota Vikings over the Adrian Peterson scandal. While a drop in the bucket, the NFL understands sponsors won’t tolerate egregious behavior by its players.

Bottom line, the NFL has been so focused on protecting the business model that they have lost sight of the brand.

A Path Forward?
What can the NFL do to rebuild its brand and its relationship with fans? In the short term, fans love the “sport” and their team – not necessarily the NFL. However, left on their own, teams have been notorious in hiding negative publicity. The NFL can help by better defining and clarifying the “NFL experience” from top to bottom including better defining the role of owners and players and laying out clear consequences. Otherwise, they continue to risk alienating fans.

For too long, the NFL has been a passive brand spectator since, for decades, it appeared that it could do no wrong. But now, the stakes are too high – sponsorships, TV rights, new football stadiums and, most importantly, keeping fan loyalty.
From a brand perspective, expanding diversity of thinking at the highest levels of NFL management is a good start. The NFL recently selected Dawn Hudson (former Pepsi CMO) as their CMO. They also just established a council of female senior executives as advisors to provide feedback on key issues that affect fans and the brand. While these appear to be significant organizational changes, the risk is that the NFL applies a cosmetic band aid to heal their brand rather than do the heavy lifting required to re-establish their overall brand. Time will tell if the NFL is truly committed to a consistent and better brand experience.


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