Dear Brands: The NFL Fail Doesn’t Have to Be Your Fail, Too

NFL, brands, sponsors

The NFL represents one of America’s favorite pastimes, but with a rap sheet that includes domestic violence, child abuse and animal cruelty, it’s becoming hard to appreciate the pigskin over the “pigs.”

It has been interesting to note the differences in reactions to the recent controversy. Some people are calling for the resignation (or firing) of league commissioner Roger Goodell — believing that as the “leader” he is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the players representing the teams within the National Football League, while others feel that Goodell shouldn’t be held responsible for the individual actions of each and every player. Some people’s opinions hinged entirely on how much someone in Goodell’s position knew, or how long he’s known it.

From a marketing perspective, the gray area resides in how the brand’s value ebbs and flows with people’s perception of the sport. Unfortunately, many have cited the Ray Rice incident as “another example of violence in football.” Before the elevator footage went viral, it was pretty much talked about like Mr. Rice was a football player who lost his temper, slapped his fiancé, and was consequently going in the naughty corner for a few games.

Once we saw what actually happened?

The conversation has become about football being a culture of violence. And while there is research to support the argument that professional football players become physically altered to act more violently because of the sport, it seems like a flimsy argument to me when there are many examples of long-term players who consistently demonstrate good sportsmanship and professional conduct, and are able to act as stellar role models for their families and fans.

Right or wrong, here’s what it comes down to. The NFL is an association that represents football. Its member teams employ the players, coaches and executives who make decisions every day on and off the field. This is how we, the people who eat chips and drink beer on our couches, paint our faces on game day, and plan our Super Bowl parties, see the sport. It’s a business pushing out a product like any other business whose products we support.

In the good old days, what we saw on the field was what we saw of the NFL. Now that we live in a world of transparency and social media, the NFL is learning what many businesses have already learned — we the people are looking behind the scenes and we have opinions about it. In the world of transparency, we are not only able to SEE much more, but we can also SAY much more.

If the NFL was smart, it would have protected its brand by dealing with these problems appropriately and quickly. When the conversation makes its way to social media, there’s no other option.

The NFL has failed to successfully handle this situation, but that doesn’t mean other brands affiliated with the league must suffer the same fate.

If you’re part of a brand team affiliated with the NFL, be smart about the next play you make. Listen closely to the conversation and make sure whatever you contribute will continue to keep your audience well informed. (One of the main issues people have with the NFL is that it’s clear to everyone that management has been hiding knowledge on deplorable events for a few months now.) You might choose to withdraw your association with the league to send your message (as P&G’s Crest has done), or you might try to leverage the situation to inspire real change, as Verizon* has done.

Yeah, we get it — this is business. According to The Wall Street Journal, one major NFL advertiser summed it up by saying, “In a world where you can’t get a big audience anymore, where the hell are you going to go? Obviously, we don’t condone violence against women, but how is it the right thing to do for our shareholders to pull out of the NFL?”

My advice to that advertiser: We don’t live in a world where you can’t get a big audience anymore — we live in a world where the big audience has moved.

We’ve traded the big screen and passive viewing experience for the small handheld screens and the ability to be actively part of big conversations in real time. We’re still on our couches, and the game might still be on, but we’re not always looking ahead. We’re looking down — typing, texting, tweeting, sharing, liking, posting and pinging away.

And we see everything.

By Lisa Dolbear, Account Planner, EMA Insight

*EMA client