When the brand wags the dog

May 6, 2014

On May 8th, Radio City Music Hall in New York City will host one of the most important events on the American professional sports calendar; the 2014 National Football League Draft of college football players. A multi-day, multi media extravaganza, and the culmination of months of intense discussion, analysis and speculation, the NFL Draft will generate millions of dollars in advertising and merchandising revenue for the NFL and their partners.

The genesis for the current NFL Draft goes back to the 1960’s when a former PR executive, Pete Rozelle, as NFL Commissioner from 1960 to 1989, embarked on an aggressive brand and marketing strategy that catapulted the NFL, and professional football into arguably the number one sport in the country, and the NFL season into a six month blitz of media coverage and fan frenzy ending in the Super Bowl.

Not content with commanding our attention from September to January, the NFL then decided they needed to find a way to promote the brand all year long, and the NFL Draft proved to be the perfect vehicle. This resulted in the Draft changing from a low key, behind the scenes exercise in selecting the best college talent to stock team rosters, which was the original intent, into a branded, and marketed extension of the NFL brand.

As the NFL Draft brand grew, media and fan focus on it grew as well, so the league decided it would be a good idea to double down and brand the process of evaluating the players to be drafted, thus creating the NFL Scouting Combine, where college players are invited to go through complex workouts, drills, and tests measuring speed, strength, flexibility, stamina, toughness, intelligence and character. As media coverage and fan focus on the NFL Scouting Combine increased, it also became a powerful NFL brand extension.

So what does all of this branding and sub-branding of the NFL and the NFL Draft mean for the league and its 32 teams? Obviously, it has garnered much attention, and much wealth.  But has there been any negative impact?

Well, in the excellent book about the New York Jets’ 2010 season by Nicholas Dawidoff, titled Collision Low Crossers, there is a story that illustrates the potential hazards of the NFL Draft’s brand power.

In 2008, the New York Jets were looking to draft a defensive lineman, and in the process of evaluating players they came across an Ohio State defensive end named Vernon Gholston, who was relatively unknown, and undistinguished until his senior season when he set a school record of 14 QB sacks, all collected in two games versus inferior opponents.

Despite being just a modest prospect, at the NFL Scouting Combine, Gholston performed miraculously in all of the drills and exercises, and as the media got wind of his combine performance, Gholston’s stock began to rise, going from a likely middle round selection to an early round draft candidate. As a result, the Jets, fearing another team would draft him later in the 1st round, or before they could choose him in the 2nd round, selected Gholston with the 6th pick in the 1st round, much higher than anyone expected before all the hype and attention he received at the NFL Scouting Combine. As it turns out, Gholston was a disaster as a football player, and played only a handful of games before being cut after three years in the league, and receiving millions of dollars from the Jets.

Now, while mistakes in evaluating the talent of players in the NFL Draft have occurred in the past, and will likely occur in the future, an argument can be made that the combined brand power of the NFL Draft and the NFL Scouting Combine, and the media attention that those brands generated, may have had a negative effect on the process itself, influencing the New York Jets into wasting a valuable draft choice, money, and prestige in 2008.

Can you think of other examples where a brand’s power may be resulting in unintended, or even negative consequences?

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