Traditional and social media continue to buzz over the response (or lack thereof) by the National Football League commissioner to well-publicized domestic violence events and an ongoing concussion crisis. 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 begin 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 and professionalization and the national stage that has come with them all. They are central to the league’s brand —as core to the NFL’s identity as were the original characteristics.
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. [TWEET THAT!]
And so we come to relationship, in final piece of the framework for Identity as Brand. How does this brand, through its ambassadors in shoulder pads and pinstripe 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 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 every weekend instead of Sunday afternoon football, hurls another stone. How many will it take before the giant is brought to its knees?
As I watch the executives scramble, and the media mavens muster their damage control strategies, and witness burnishing of player and team reputations in the community, I wonder if any of the efforts of brand restoration will speak to the parents of young children who wonder at the tradeoff football represents. Is the flash of fame—even for those with few other options—worth the lifelong cost? Will society even permit them to make that choice? It will be an intriguing brand story to watch in the coming years.
For other posts in the Telosity series, click here.