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One Big Idea: Kneel or Stand – What’s Happening to the NFL’s Brand?

October 18, 2017

| Bill Gullan |

As the cultural divide continues to widen in the US, many brands are caught in the middle. Most notably, the NFL finds itself in between the two positions and things are starting to heat up for the brand. In this podcast, we take another look at the things impacting the NFL’s brand and that of others in the crosshairs. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!

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Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, your host and the president of Finch Brands, a premiere boutique branding agency. This is on One Big Idea. This is where we lay out a little bit on one particular topic. Whether it be a part of the brand and business building tool kit or something from the realm of current events.

This week I wanted to check back in on something that we discussed a year or so ago and that was the National Football League brand and some of the challenges that the NFL was having. A year ago, there was a big ratings decline in the first few weeks of the season and there was a lot of hand ringing. In some ways, it felt like it was the first sign of any vulnerability really that the NFL had had in many years.

The NFL had asserted both financially and perceptually this hold on American life. This command of our Sundays and our Monday nights and now our Thursdays and everything else. The brand seemed unstoppable. And while it still is far and away the gold standard of live TV and its sub-brands like Monday Night Football continue to be strong and highly valued, the NFL is in some trouble here – at least perceptually.

About a year ago we talked about those early seasons rating drops and there had been a little bit of recovery, there had been a lot of factors that had been discussed back then for why that was. Some big-name players had gotten injured. Last fall the election and all the news surrounding it had sucked up all the oxygen and diverted a large number of eyeballs. There had been debates on the same nights as games. Things like that.

However, we couldn’t ignore then, and we certainly can’t ignore now the role that the NFL, or the position I guess that the NFL had gotten itself in and absolutely did not want to be in, which is in the cross hairs of this cultural and political divide that continues to roil America.

Back then, a year ago, how innocent we were. It seemed that this polarization was a threat to the NFL. It was because the cultural left and cultural right each had a case to prosecute that the NFL was sort of contrary to their own interests and sensibilities.

The left at that time was talking about these wealthy, out of touch white owners who were lining their pockets while the players were cast aside. It was inauthentic commitments to things like domestic violence. You know, they step up with pink one month out of the year to talk about breast cancer but their interest in social justice was very much in question. This continues with obviously be an unfolding conversation about CTE and the nature of the physical risk and the degree in which the league and its ownership covered that up.

We were talking a lot last year about racist team names some think. The Redskins and beyond. It wasn’t really a new critique. There were new elements to it, but the critique of the NFL from the cultural left was pretty well baked in.

Now last year, however, around this time there was the beginning of some distaste or anger from the cultural right. The Kaepernick protest had really just begun. Folks were still reeling from the halftime performance of the Super Bowl prior that Beyonce had given, being very political and activistic, if that’s a word.

You certainly saw some cultural conservatives begin to fall out with the NFL over items like this. And at the time I think we made the point that the NFL was in a bit of a difficult spot. The knives were out for the league from both sides, which is a new territory by the way. The NBA’s long balanced the empowerment and aesthetic and expression of its athletes with sensibilities of advertising, owners, season ticket holders, that might be a little bit more culturally mainstream or risk adverse. But the NFL has really occupied this special place in our culture that’s really never before seen in sports and entertainment and so here was the concern.

Now checking back in on that, good grief. It’s only been a year and looking at the ratings, they’ve declined even further. In fact, the ratings up to this point compared to last year down about 7.5% according to the Sporting News and down 18% over the first five weeks of the 2015 season. That’s a precipitous drop.

And again, there are all sorts of exculpatory reasons. There were hurricanes and increased competition from cable news. There were a lot of newsworthy events like the unfortunate situation in Las Vegas, etc. and then generally cord cutting just continues, and it’s an issue that everybody in entertainment is dealing with. But you can’t look beyond what has happened to make the cultural divide and conversation even more toxic related to the NFL.

With Colin Kaepernick remaining unsigned, with many more protests taking various forms, with the President then weighing in and the Vice President then weighing in, and the blow up that has occurred all around this issue of anthem protests and what it means and whether to tolerate it or not, etc., ad nauseum. I think normal sports fans, like me, are just kind of exhausted by the whole thing.

But here we are. The NFL does not want to be in this position. Commissioner Goodell had said that he wants all players to stand for the National Anthem. That said, that creates some backlash too.

You have a situation where the cultural right and the cultural left, again each have this case to make and the New York Times recently came out, very recently in the last week or so with an article that was based upon a study I think by Morning Consult that found that because of this the NFL is now one of the most divisive brands in the U.S.

It’s less divisive than Trump Hotels mind you but it’s more divisive than Huffington Post, which proclaims a leftward lean, Chick-Fil-A, which has very strong opinions that are controversial, Fox Business, Breitbart, these other in some cases very overtly partisan media sources are considered less divisive. They measure divisiveness by the degree to which there is a difference in favorability among Clinton voters and Trump voters.

And the NFL, at least right now we have a very strong lean actually to the left with Clinton voters viewing the NFL positively at plus 38 and with Trump viewers viewing the NFL negatively at minus 24. That’s a net difference of 62 points. Now caveats of course that outrage has a less long shelf life than it used to have in our society and who knows, the controversy may be gone. Kaepernick may get signed because Aaron Rodgers got hurt and everybody’s back to normal and happy and standing and who knows. Doubt it. Maybe the President moves onto other things. Who knows. But as of now, the NFL was in a bit of trouble a year ago and is in much more, at least in terms of overt and outward negativity from various sides of the cultural and political dialogue.

Again, there is some question as to what degree this hurts the bottom line. The NFL has a long way to go down still to decline in long term ways that threaten not only it’s survival, which seems absurd but it’s continued preeminence in the sports and entertainment landscape in the U.S.

Now while all this is happening, not a surprise in the data, I don’t think there’s the same level of data on it but ESPN has kind of stepped in it too. It’s funny how a year ago I could have done the same thing. Talking about the criticisms of ESPN on political and cultural grounds and back then they would have been coming primarily from the right. As we’ve heard, that has gotten louder. Giving awards to Caitlyn Jenner. Covering with real almost breaking news interests things like Michael Sam and Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest and whether he signed or not signed and what other athletes around the world and in different sports are doing or are not doing to protest.

ESPN has also been very outspoken in what they would say is a values level around things like Title 9. They have vertical, sub-brands, ESPNW to cover so called women’s issues related to sports. The Undefeated, which looks at culture and sports from a perspective of race. And those platforms perhaps, almost by definition come at issues of gender and race from a progressive perspective. Then you have situations like Curt Schilling and Jemele Hill and some believing that there was a double standard in the way that they were treated and sanctioned.

ESPN doesn’t want to be in the middle of this either. So Jemele Hill comes out and Tweets that the President is a white supremacist and is not punished and then Tweets something about an advertising boycott and is punished. Now you have the Reverend Sharpton and others promising a boycott of ESPN advertisers. These big preeminent, dominate brands in sports and culture are stuck in the middle of a debate and a dialogue, it’s not really dialogue, that would suggest that folks are talking to one another but a divide in our country.

Both who are run by very astute and savvy business people who have challenges that are outside of their own realm continue to step in it and make the natural challenges in terms of court cutting and other things even harder by alienating and seeming to go back and forth between alienating one side or the other rather than flying above or below the fray.

I guess if there is a lesson to take from this and when we work with clients on positioning and brand personality and down to the level of values, one needs to own who one is. Trying to be all things to all people means to be nothing to anybody. I’m sure that the NFL would rather not even be in the political conversation at all.

ESPN on the other hand may benefit from underlying and clarifying the fact that it maybe does have at least a cultural point of view. Now there could be arguments about whether that’s helpful or not helpful but trying to appease the fringes on both sides and again, alienating both is certainly not the place that ESPN wants to be as it relates to the growth and continued success of the business.

We’ll leave it there but suffice it to say that as we’ve always said here, commerce is downstream from culture and what happens in the culture represented by brands such as this and angry back and forth such as we’ve seen with ESPN and with the NFL, gather cultural momentum of their own and that certainly has an impact on those brands and others who play in their spaces.

You already see Fox Sports for example competing with and positioning against ESPN. You see smaller brands punching up like Clay Travis on Outkick the Coverage with things that Barstool Sports has done. This creates opportunity for other content providers to come at the world from their own unique angle and that’s a good thing. But I’m sure ESPN wouldn’t want to be caught in the middle and neither would the NFL.

We’ll leave it there and we’ll talk to you soon and sign off from the cradle of liberty. 

About The Author: Bill Gullan

Bill Gullan is the President of Finch Brands. His nearly 30-year (ugh!) career in branding has revolved around naming, messaging, M&A brand integration, and qualitative research. He has been with Finch Brands since 2001.

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