The NFL An “Untacklable” Brand

September 17, 2015

Is there really such thing as an “untacklable” or unstoppable brand? After two decades as a brand consultant, my gut reaction is, “of course not, any brand can meet its demise through mismanagement, malfeasance and a host of other activities whether in or out of control of the leadership”. Although, not so fast…

It seems as though the NFL’s offseason (or in season for that matter) is beset with ever growing scandal each year. From a commissioner who is perceived as anti-labor to domestic abuse, animal cruelty, drug abuse and more by players. Organizations who hold their municipalities’ hostage in negotiations for facilities. Teams accused of outright cheating, which many thought would be the death sentence for the league, challenging the very integrity of the game.

All of that said, anyone who thought that the NFL would suffer any financial impact from any of this, clearly has never set foot in an NFL venue on game day. The fans, the truest example of fanatics, will not be deterred. Full disclosure, I am a big fan of the NFL, in particular the Pittsburgh Steelers (who have had their own issues), but nonetheless I am fascinated by the resiliency of this brand which has faltered so grandly and on such a public stage yet is immune to any financial repercussions.

The cause of this could be the very structure of this brand. It really is a composition of many brands, the league itself and its 32 teams. It’s this structure that allows fans to adopt an attitude that, “it’s my team vs. the NFL, the other teams”. It allows people to rationalize their passion for the team and absolve themselves of any guilt. It’s a case where fans can say, “the league has its problems, I’m just glad that isn’t what my team stands for”. For example, are Tom Brady and the Patriots cheaters, does Ray Rice deserve a second chance or should he be scorned forever because of domestic abuse and the gruesome images that we saw on that video. The NFL has made commercials to address the fact that domestic violence is wrong, but shouldn’t that just be common sense? In spite of this and other episodes of domestic violence, the female fan base continues to grow. What about Adrian Peterson? Michael Vick? Civic pride and passion for your team allows people to overlook the shortcomings of their favorite team.

As a Steelers fan, it has been interesting to watch the reaction to Michael Vick as he’s been welcomed to the team. While he was not brought to Pittsburgh without some rumblings, some of the fans that screamed the loudest when he was first reinstated to the league aren’t screaming so loud these days.

In the final analysis of the success of the league, TV ratings, which lead to the all mighty dollar, none of this appears to matter. Ratings for the NFL kickoff game on NBC just keep getting stronger, up 5% from last year and 9% from the year before that. I think ultimately, the NFL is about competition, story lines, passion and drama. Far from damaging the brand, I think these things make it grow. It has been ingrained in our society, the Super Bowl is a national holiday. It may not be “unsinkable”, but it’s hard to imagine the crisis that would derail the NFL. I’m not making a value judgement on whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I’ll leave that up to the individual to judge, it’s just the reality of it.

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