The NFL has been one of the most impressive brands of the last 40 years. But today, the NFL is a brand in crisis. According to License! Global, they have consistently ranked in the top 20 since 2010. The rankings focus on an annual compilation of retails sales worldwide. Superbowl XLIX — where the Patriots beat the Seahawks — was watched by 114.4 million people. Even with ratings down, the NFL’s most recent Superbowl pitting New England against Atlanta drew a measly 111.3 million viewers according to Nielsen. (That was sarcasm – it’s still a ton of eyeballs).
While the 2017 Superbowl is the single-most watched event for 2017 domestically, the ratings slip is indicative of possible trouble for the NFL. Recent reports are suggestive of declines in television ratings from 2016 to 2017, and this is on top of clear declines from 2015 to 2016. According to Bleacher Report, ratings in 2016 were down 8%. This year, ratings so far are down an average of another 9% according to Advertising Age. That means that ratings over the last 2 years have dropped cumulatively by more than 16%. Average attendance for 2017 thus far is also down — by 5 percent, while gross attendance is off 8 percent from 2016.
Television, gameday fans, and product sales are the bread and butter of NFL survival. And no one seems to have one good answer as to why there is such a decline. I don’t believe there is only one answer.
NFL Brand Suffering From Politicization?
A natural and prevalent theory advanced by many is the suggestion that anthem protests and outspoken athletes is a major culprit. If you ask DirecTV, they might tell you that the anthem protests might be a driving force behind customers canceling the popular NFL Sunday Ticket packages.
The widely publicized recent political upheaval the NFL is enduring — the faux race war between President Donald Trump and African-American NFL players — is being pointed to as a significant reason for the decline in ratings, attendance, and potentially viewer revenue from sources such as DirecTV.
By listening to various sources, one may get the impression that there is a correlation there.
Is that possible? Yes. Is it the only reason? Not likely.
NFL Suffering from Viewer Competition
The NFL has its hands full with a mass of competition. Today, attention spans are about as lengthy as that of goldfish. The football fan is more distracted than ever, with more avenues for entertainment and stimuli, and some believe that the rise of the smartphone is largely responsible for that.
Several theories exist about the NFL’s inability to connect with the Millenials. Those aged 9-30 who either were turned away from football by overprotective parents, or those who struggle with the concept that there must be a loser in sports.
In my opinion, I find that the connection has less to do with the competition aspect or the fear of injury aspect, but that the game is not capturing the imagination of the Millenials the way other forms of entertainment do. As connected as they are socially, I suspect that the main issue is that the NFL brand is struggling with connecting to this younger, more socially aware segment of our population.
The NFL Has Lost Control of its Brand
While the above may all be contributing factors, I would offer this as a possible key to the issue plaguing the NFL…it no longer has full control of its own brand.
Team loyalties aside, the NFL had been very good at maintaining control over its brand. Even during the six strike/lockout seasons (1968, 1970, 1974, 1982, 1987, and 2011), the NFL appeared to maintain control over the narrative about their brand. They continued to expand beyond the normal limitations of the season, and implemented year-round activities and programming to keep the NFL front-and-center for sports fans across the country.
Adding such outlets as the NFL network, making larger productions out of the combine, the draft, and the Hall of Fame inductions are ways they have continued to expand the reach throughout the year. But here is the kicker: What brands exist that have to deal with the public relations and marketing chaos generated by professional athletes and sports teams?
Cue the crickets.
Thus the NFL’s Problem
The teams themselves view their own image as their brand, and embark on efforts of their own to promote their team, their merchandise, their programs and players.
The players, who some claim have egos bigger than some politicians we know and love (or not), also work on building their own personal brand, both to provide additional income while they are active players and when they retire from the game.
While the NFL has licensing power, it has lost control of its own messaging, as teams, owners, coaches, and players often move outside of the bounds of the brand image and embark on their own efforts at brand development, intentionally or otherwise. At no time has this been more evident than at this time, when players have gone as far as to initiate protests of the National Anthem, or making false accusations of racial bias by police. The political temperature, at an all-time high, is restricting the NFL from maintaining brand integrity because it has virtually no control over the teams, the owners, the coaches, and the players.
The Negative Brand Impact
The impact is that it dilutes what the NFL is all about. I am not suggesting that the players, coaches, owners or teams are doing anything wrong by protesting or involving their political interests in their professional personas. This article has nothing to do with politics, and I won’t say here who I think is right or wrong. What I am saying is that with all of the drama being generated from all of these internal sources, how is it possible for the NFL to maintain control of the message?
Let’s think about it this way. How many Google employees are out kneeling in front of the mothership every morning in protest or support of some political belief? Anyone at Apple doing that? How about Coca-Cola?
I am not making the point that brands should not allow employees freedom of expression. it is how it is expressed and the manner in which it is expressed that is causing the NFL the most trouble. When the players opt to use their place of employment as a platform for that expression, it takes away from the brand. And since players are often on the clock anytime they are in public, it is hard for them to keep in mind the brand implications of their public expression.
Customers dumping DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket are examples of where the audience has decided that the brand has lost relevance for them in a meaningful way, in part because of the nature of the expression taking place. The NFL has spent months dealing with the protests, which has taken away from their message of quality sports entertainment. The sideshow that has evolved has proved a significant distraction. When a brand cannot keep focus on their core messaging and engagement with their customers, it begins to lose the influence and impact that it has had.
The political aspects are not the only challenges that the NFL brand is dealing with. The league continues to be dogged by domestic abuse issues, periodic substance abuse problems, and even child abuse by some of its most revered heroes. Each and every incident takes a bite out of the NFL customer base because it harms the brand. And today’s customers are not just talking with their wallets, they are talking with their attention as well. And attention is critical for the NFL’s future success.
The NFL’s Solution
I believe that the NFL ratings are down because the NFL brand is less relevant today than at any point in the last 30 years. A loss of brand integrity is not the only reason for what is taking place now. The NFL faces tougher challenges from competing media in a world with goldfish-sized attention spans. But it is very hard to keep to a script when the actors keep extemporizing, and that makes the challenge much more difficult.
Like the NFL, the NBA faces a similar issue. Particularly with its biggest star, LeBron James. There does not seem to be the same evidence that MLB or the NHL are facing the same challenge, or at least to the same extent.
I don’t have an easy answer for the NFL on this one. Keeping players, coaches, and owners focused on the league brand when they are also keenly aware of their own individual brands is a nearly impossible expectation. The owners, as the people who oversee NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, would have to be the likely catalyst to help drive the change. Goodell might be able to show them the value and convince them to lead their players in being more dedicated NFL brand ambassadors, but that seems unlikely. The egos involved probably won’t be able to reconcile themselves with that. Until the NFL does come up with an answer, the decline will continue, and the brand will not have the staying power that it once did.