No matter how many horrible headlines emerge from the NFL – cheating, violence, abuse, racism, and brain damage among them – the league itself comes out unscathed, time and time again, like a veritable Teflon Don of professional sports. What’s their secret?
The National Football League and its teams not only survive scandals, they thrive despite them.
NFL sponsorship grew last year, reportedly up 7.8 percent to $1.2 billion. The NFL’s female fan base also grew despite numerous domestic abuse storylines.
Even some of the most scandal-plagued teams – think: the Washington Redskins, New York Jets and New England Patriots – rank above average in terms of sponsorship revenue, according to the IEG. On top of that, brand engagement and customer loyalty research consultancy Brand Keys recently ranked the Deflategate-plagued Patriots #1 in terms of fan loyalty.
“[The NFL has] had their fair share of challenges and controversies and stories that might have been devastating to most businesses, but they seem to have come out not just OK, but actually thriving,” said Vassilis Dalakas, professor of marketing at Cal State San Marcos and who supports the Green Bay Packers. “It seems the NFL is able to handle all of that and overcome it quite well.”
There are many reasons for this, including the sheer number of parties involved, which means, to a degree, blame is spread out among players, teams, the league and the media.
But it’s also because many of these scandals – Plaxico Burress shooting himself in the leg at a nightclub or Adrian Peterson beating his son, for example – aren’t technically football-related and fans care about football, said Bianca Lee, founder of White Rose Marketing Solutions and a Pittsburgh Steelers fan who is contemplating switching allegiance to the Jets. What’s more, football players have a shorter tenure than other athletes, so their problems often retire when they do, she said.
And, simply put, sports fans are not known for being particularly rational – especially when their favorite team is involved, or a hated rival.
“I’ve done lots of research on sports fandom and one thing consistent is that the more identified the fan is – the more diehard they are – the less objective that fan is,” Dalakas said. “The glasses a diehard fan wears always look at the world in a way that is favorable to the team they are rooting for and unfavorable to their rivals.”
While experts agree the NFL isn’t scandal proof per se – and a big enough issue could in fact eventually severely damage its reputation – the league is in an enviable position with an extremely forgiving fan base.
So what has the NFL and its individual teams figured out about fan relations that marketers should know?
There are three pillars to the NFL’s success.
Pillar 1: Passion
The NFL has a product its fans can’t live without – so much so that it’s really the only thing consumers are still willing to watch on live TV.
“The NFL is one of most successful TV franchises in the history of TV, which means consumers still want to watch, which means advertisers still want to pay for it, which means TV stations still want to carry it,” said Bruce Clark, marketing professor at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University, who says he follows the Patriots because he lives in Boston, but wouldn’t describe himself as a fan.
As the saying goes, love is blind.
This means consumers are more than willing to overlook, ignore, downplay, forgive, and explain away transgressions that might otherwise tarnish their beloved team and pastime.
Dalakas says the closest parallel to a brand with a comparable cult following is Apple, which clearly boasts its own passionate fan base.
“Thankfully for them, they have not had that kind of controversy, but if they did, fans would be willing to overlook those transgressions because they love the product so much,” Dalakas said.
Eden Gillott Bowe, president of crisis and reputation management firm Gillott Communications, who says she is from LA, where they have a reputation for rooting for whoever is winning, also places Apple in the same “untouchable” category as the NFL.
“The public is so enthralled by cheering their football teams and buying their new iPhones that they’re happy to look the other way despite cheating, domestic abuse, and child labor,” she said. “Essentially, build up enough of a cult-like following and people will turn a blind eye to a lot of wrongdoing.”
Consumers have a tremendous ability to not notice the things they don’t want to see, Clark agreed.
“If you love football, you really don’t want to notice that football might cause permanent brain damage to the players. If you love football, you may not want to notice that the game has tremendous incentives for violence,” Clark said. “So people have a tremendous ability to not want to believe bad things about the things they like. They love the NFL, so they kind of just don’t pay attention to things that are bad because they love it so much.”
This means strong brands that are well-loved can also get away with more than those with less passionate consumers, Clark said. He pointed to Amazon, which made headlines recently about how it treats its employees.
“But the thing is, people love Amazon, so it’s ‘Don’t show me another bad article about Amazon,’” Clark said. “‘If I start to think about it, maybe I wouldn’t be able to shop there anymore.’ I think they feel the same way about the NFL.”
For his part, Geoff Cook, partner at branding agency Base Design and who says his blood runs green for the Philadelphia Eagles, pointed to Facebook and its incredible popularity that he says “encourages us to overlook the company’s selling of our personal information for profit.”
Pillar 2: Community
The NFL knows there is truly no ‘I’ in team and has come to represent a family in a way for its devoted fans and that, Dalakas noted, is so important that even at the end of the most heartbreaking of seasons when fans say they’re done with a given team, they always inevitably come back. Most brands, however, don’t have that luxury.
In other words, while a diehard fan of the Seattle Seahawks might have been exasperated as a result of product performance last year, he or she is far more likely to stick with the brand in question going into the new season than if, say, a cell phone provider or cable company wasn’t meeting his or her expectations, Dalakas said.
Brands, too, should strive to cultivate similar communities in which consumers feel like fans.
“I think with social, there’s a huge, huge opportunity for brands to do that – to make you and me a part of the team,” Clark said. “The way I talk about a sports team with ‘we’ – I should feel the same way about my hotel, my airline and my bank. The lesson every brand can learn is how to make consumers feel they are part of this and that we are part of their identity.”
Fostering a loyal community is the key to a brand’s success, Cook said.
“The NFL has to its credit developed a fanatically devoted set of fans. They then encourage them to interact with the brand in myriad ways, from attending a game and watching a game with friends to participating in Fantasy Football or even playing the game itself,” Cook said. “If today’s brand is increasingly about experience, it can be argued that the NFL is the most successful brand of our time.”
Pillar 3: Tradition
From kickoff in the first game of the season to hoisting the Lombardi trophy at the end of the Super Bowl, the NFL season is rife with tradition. Individual teams, too, have their own traditions, from the Seahawks’ raising the 12 Flag, to the Packers’ Lambeau Leap, and the Steelers’ Terrible Towels.
Brands, too, should strive to create their own unmissable traditions, Clark said.
“Those kinds of traditions…are very powerful and one of the other things sports can engender is multi-generation brand loyalty,” Clark said. “If you grew up in a family and your parents are Packers fans, in all likelihood, you are, too, and you think of family connections and the things you grew up with and the things you shared.”
This means brands that create their own traditions have a comparable opportunity to inspire loyalty for generations.
Take, for example, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This is an example of a brand that has created a tradition consumers watch each year, Clark said. Amazon has also created buzz around Cyber Monday and Prime Day as recurring dates to buy presents and/or get deals, he added.
Like the NFL season, these branded traditions are also reliable, which yield even more cultural engagement opportunities on a predictable schedule.
In addition, Apple’s much-buzzed-out iPhone announcements have, in recent years, come in the first week of September, which could be its own potential brand tradition in the making, Clark said.
There’s also a certain spectacle in individual games, as well as throughout the course of the season. Again, brands, like the NFL, should strive to create spectacles that consumers want to be a part of, Clark said.
“Look at Apple Stores. They are experiences. They are cathedrals of technology,” Clark said. “It’s a spectacle.”
What is your brand doing to score points with consumers and ensure your reputation is scandal proof?