The NFL is scrambling for some good-news daylight like a frantic quarterback, but as brands go, America’s game appears utterly indestructible, sports business experts say.
How many other U.S. businesses in recent memory have withstood such a rapid, public blitz of alleged employee-committed crimes, ranging from murder and domestic violence to child abuse and dog killing?
Banners flown above stadiums, women’s groups and U.S. lawmakers have all urged NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to resign. The Washington Redskins franchise has been called racist for its name. Hundreds of current and ex-players have sued the league for brain damage sustained by on-field hits.
Guess what? Stadiums remain packed. Games still dominate TV ratings. Major League Baseball just opted to re-schedule the 2014 World Series to avoid getting eclipsed by regular-season football games. The $9-billion National Football League — its image surely dented by the alleged offenses of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Aaron Hernandez and others — roars forward like a no-huddle offense seeking another quick score.
“The NFL is unbreakable,” said Darren Marshall, executive vice president of consulting and research at rEvolution, a Chicago-based sports marketing firm. “This is like an aircraft carrier hitting a mine. It blew a small hole in the hull, but the ship won’t sink and it won’t stop sailing while repairs are made … The TV networks know they can’t find something else that will consistently deliver 17 million viewers and stop people cutting the cord.”
“Even though the NFL’s initial response to this (Rice) debacle has kind of been obtuse, negligent and dilatory, the NFL is a powerful and enduring icon of America,” said Dean Crutchfield, a New York-based brand consultant.
“A lot of America’s values, you’ll find in the NFL. Therefore, people don’t want to see that broken,” Crutchfield added. “It is one of those brands that people genuinely care about, are genuinely passionate about. Now, they’re cleaning their act up.”
Calling on experts
Fans must judge whether the latest NFL moves are indeed a cleanup or a PR sweep, but on Monday Goodell sent a letter to all NFL teams announcing the league has “engaged leading experts” on domestic violence “to provide specialized advice and guidance in ensuring that the NFL's programs reflect the most current and effective approaches.”
Those experts include: Lisa Friel, former head of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit in the New York County District Attorney's Office; Jane Randel, co-founder of NO MORE, a national initiative to raise the profile of and normalize the conversation about domestic violence and sexual assault; and Rita Smith, former executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
“Our entire office will be accountable for the success of these efforts,” Goodell wrote in Monday’s letter. "... Our goal is to make a real difference on these and other issues. We know that we will be judged by our actions and their effectiveness.”
In sport or any business, the final report card issued by consumers doesn't reflect a particular crisis so much as how the brand under fire responded to the negative events, said David Carter, founder of the Sports Business Group, a sports-marketing service in Southern California.
“Most perceive the NFL’s collective response to these recent crises to have been inadequate,” Carter said. “But, importantly, the league still has the opportunity to turn public perception around in the weeks and months to come provided their actions are meaningful and comprehensive.”
Fans aren't just men
And in a sport that has painstakingly tried to woo new female fans — through public efforts like the league’s pink-hued, October-long stand against breast cancer — this is indeed a precarious moment for the NFL, some female rooters say.
“Fans still support their teams, but some of us do so with a heavier heart nowadays,” said Lynda Woolard, a passionate backer of her hometown New Orleans Saints. “If the purpose of the league office actually is to protect the shield, they are doing it poorly. Having positioned themselves as judge, jury and executioner on NFL issues hasn't played out in the way they expected.”
Woolard also has scolded the NFL’s league office for its status as a tax-exempt non-profit, launching a popular online petition to have Congress change that arrangement.
“The league office is not thought of well by the fans at this point and it's only a matter of time, in my opinion, before it affects how the fans relate to their teams — unless changes are made,” Woolard added.
Will she go to the stadium to rally the winless Saints this Sunday in their home opener?
“I will!” she added. “Proudly cheering the Saints who need a little boost it seems."
"The NFL has to be concerned. While the stadiums are full and ratings are high, the NFL’s brand is getting tarnished."
Of course, NFL-fandom has been fed up with the league before.
Ten months ago, NBC News reported the league was “sweating two crises this week — the reported bullying of a Miami Dolphin by a teammate and the admission by one of its legends (Tony Dorsett) that apparent traumatic brain injury has led him to consider suicide.”
In the wake of Rice’s video-captured assault on his then-fiancee and Peterson’s indictment for allegedly physically neglecting his son, there is again sweat on the foreheads of NFL leaders.
“The NFL has to be concerned. While the stadiums are full and ratings are high, the NFL’s brand is getting tarnished,” said Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “The risk is that the NFL develops negative associations. Over time, this could lead to less support from sponsors, fans and players.”
To date, that has not happened. Two NFL sponsors have publicly backed the league.
Late last week, Federal Express executive Patrick Fitzgerald said: "We value our relationship with the NFL. We are watching developments in this matter closely, and we are confident that the League will take the appropriate steps."
Another league sponsor, Marriott, last week also tweeted its NFL alliance.
“The NFL is likely to be OK,” Calkins said.
“While there are negative stories, every week there are dozens of other, more positive stories. A favorite team wins, an underdog comes through, a player makes a spectacular catch. These stories offset the impact of the negative news.”