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The NFL – a Brand Identity in Crisis

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Looking at “identity as brand” of American Pro Football. Article originally published on October 17, 2014, and then updated August 14, 2015.

Nearly a year ago, back when the concussion and domestic violence crises were the NFL’s issues of the day, I (and many others) couldn’t help but notice and write about the toxicity that was enveloping the NFL brand. It seemed to be a brand identity in decline, I thought, and submitted that it would be, “an intriguing story to watch in the coming years,” to see how the NFL brand would fare.

As it turns out, that may have been an understatement, perhaps an epic one.

Fast-forward 10 months, and today we may well be witnessing such an accumulation of identity, brand and leadership problems as to upgrade the threat level from “crisis” to “near implosion”.

In recent years, the NFL has yielded a trove of controversies, 3 of which, emblematic of the relentlessly sensationalist media coverage we experience today, have been stamped with the infamous “-gate” suffix. That’s Spygate, Bountygate, and now the most absurd, Deflategate. Those scandals mostly involve field-of-play violations and accusations of cheating, and so of course pale in comparison to the high-profile problems with concussions and the league’s response to player safety, well-publicized domestic violence events and the usual handful or two of players who have had regular brushes the law, substance abuse or performance enhancing drugs.

Together, that list makes for a troubled brand in need of careful rehabilitation and an authentic recovery of the better facets of the league’s identity – things like its reliance on team play, capability to inspire young people to exercise, they way it can produce incredible stories, or its long history of bringing people together. (What other sport has spawned an international day of get-togethers, nacho eating, and conversation like Super Bowl Sunday?!)

Instead, the leaders of this faltering brand identity have engaged in another round of brand masochism, and waged a protracted and now seemingly endless scandal over what amounts to enough air to fill a circus clown’s balloon (or by the referee’s count, 2 psi per football spread over 11 game balls).

Yes, you read that correctly.

Upon discovery of some hint of wrongdoing relating to the possible deflation of game footballs during a playoff game late in 2014, the commissioner and league office have fixed their laser-guided focus on destroying the credibility of one of the league’s star players over some suspected (and lacking in direct evidence, it seems) violation of an obscure competition rule.

First came the accusation from the opposition, then came the private eye and his “Wells Report”, followed by the destroyed cell phone, and the 4 game suspension. That ban, it turns out, is equal to the disciplinary action the league handed out for such offenses as substance abuse, performance enhancing drug use, and even a conviction for driving while intoxicated, not to mention double the initial suspension it levied for that now infamous criminal domestic abuse case involving a player who punched out his fiancée.

It all might be laughable if it weren’t so real.

As I write, the NFL’s parade of the bizarre has turned into a legal game of chicken between the league office and one of its star quarterbacks, his team, and the players’ union. Leading the charge, strident as a bull on the rush, the league’s commissioner has galloped past numerous exit points that could have stemmed this manufactured controversy and quelled the absurdity. And yet, perhaps transfixed by his own authority or determined to make amends for the light punishments he handed down in the domestic abuse cases that flooded the news last year, the commissioner barrels ahead. He’s now dragged the whole thing all the way to federal court.

Trundling along behind, of course, is the brand that a year ago already appeared to be flipping into crisis mode.

Are we witnessing the early stages of a full-fledged brand-gate? Keep the NFL brand paper towels at the ready, the front office has a mess on its hands.

Here’s what the brand faced a year ago, what do you think?

Even a cursory glance at the tenor of the coverage will tell you that the NFL is in trouble. Its identity is challenged, and we are witness to the scrambling of huge wealth to protect this asset from the onslaught of a number of powerful forces – one of them most formidable: the mothers and fathers of young boys.

Recently, we have explored the shifting nature of brand through a 5 dimensional framework consisting of the brand’s origin, recognition, intention, sustenance and relationship. But we’ve looked at it largely in the abstract. The current crisis in the NFL’s reputation gives us a chance to look at the erosion and migration of brand in real life…and in real time.


For years, sports fans, team owners, professional players and the media have held in place a tacitly established set of rules both for the game and for events that surround it. Even an uninitiated observer will recognize the distinct parallels between the gameday rituals of the NFL and the gladiatorial combat of ancient Rome or ancient tribal warfare. The powerful brand essence of “football” emerged out of the historically robust sense of self that has long been possessed by Americans (yet subject to growing skepticism in the rest of the world.) From the beginning, the NFL brand identity has been a legitimate extension of the American ideals of youthful vigor, bootstrapping aspiration and manifest destiny, hard-working everyday heroes and rigorous but seemingly harmless conflict. These are the origins of the brand—the sources of its identity both internal and external.

The NFL has always defined itself as an entity for which the game is everything and the brand is known and recognized by others through events on the field, not off. The majestic theme music that heralds TV coverage of games like a royal trumpeter suggests an urgency that injects the brand with a boost of stature and self-importance. Yes, the NFL has built its brand around the game and the field of play (or combat?), and it has told us that the brand begins and ends there.


The pact among football fans, team owners, players and their families remained intact for several generations, but it is tenuous today. For fans, professional football has delivered entertainment; for players, it has delivered the promise of riches and fame; and for owners, it has delivered the power of greater wealth, influence and prestige – all from a regularly scheduled and fairly-refereed contest of good clean fun.

There is something quite winsome, even wholesome, about a rough-and-tumble sport that produced an unambiguous narrative filled with clear winners and noble losers, but in which no one really gets hurt. The ugly reality of broken bodies and damaged brains was always there, but it’s only now begun to efface the sanitized illusion. Add that to highly publicized incidents of players behaving criminally off the field along with an epidemic of performance enhancing drug use, and you get a major shift in the way the brand is recognized and received.


The marketing genius of the game is still unmistakable, but the latest erratic actions of its players and the commissioner leads those who interact with the brand to suspect its intentions. “What really, is this brand about and what are its aims?” we ask.

At one time, the brand intentions of the NFL were likely harmless and pure: groups of skilled athletes who just wanted to keep playing after college, have some fun and competition, and maybe make a bit of money, formed the backbone of a fledgling league. Over time, the player draft, the expansion of tactics and coaching (and players!), the growing sciences of everything from biomechanics to sports psychology, and the arrival of TV caused the spectacle of the sport to grow, but not as much as the paydays.


Today’s NFL is sustained by the allure of profits, growth, professionalization and the national stage that has welcomed the league. Now those characteristics are central to the league’s brand —as core to the NFL’s identity as the original attributes mentioned above.

The concoction that has yielded wealth and fame for the league today has also brought arrogance, wealth and detachment. The NFL steadily mortgaged the trust of its most critical stakeholders – parents and their families.


And so we come to relationship, this final piece of the framework for Identity as Brand. How does this brand, through its ambassadors in shoulder pads and suits alike, relate to others? How do they treat their allies and competitors? These days, even a foam-finger wearing NFL fan would have to answer, “not well.”

Like the shift of tectonic shift plates, a handful of domestic abuse cases and a few instances of executive insensitivity (and more recently, downright stupidity) have triggered a fault line in the trust between a highly efficient business engine and its most critical stakeholder. Every time a parent sends her son out to play soccer instead of football, she flings another stone at the forehead of the goliath NFL. Every teenager who clicks the television over to college basketball each weekend instead of Sunday afternoon football hurls another. How many will it take before the giant is brought to its knees?

As the executives scramble, the media mavens muster their damage control strategies, and both players and teams try to burnish their reputations in the community, I wonder if any of these efforts of brand restoration will speak to the parents of young children who are aware of the trade-offs football requires. Is the flash of fame—even for those with few other options—worth the lifelong cost? In the coming years will society even permit parents to allow their children to play football given the apparent consequences that playing the game has? It will be an intriguing brand story to watch.

Image Credit
dean bertoncelj / Shutterstock.com

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