The National Football League, known for being on the cutting edge of everything to do with marketing, has found itself in an unenviable position when it comes to player conduct. Since the February 2013 Super Bowl Game, 31 NFL players have been arrested for their illegal, personal conduct off the field of play, an arrest rate increase of 75% year over year. Charges range from driving under the influence (DUI) to first degree murder and regardless of the severity of the offense the criminal behavior of so many of the games players is bad for the brand, bad for revenues and bad for the game of professional football.
The recently filed, first degree murder charges against former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez is shedding a brighter spot light on a disturbing trend that is proving to be embarrassing and expensive for the offending players teams and the NFL as a whole. In order to stem the damage to the brand after the Hernandez arrest, the New England patriots recently recalled more than 1,200 Hernandez jerseys at an estimated cost of $250,000 to the club. While seemingly a costly maneuver, the total cost to the team and an the league in lost ticket sales, revenues from endorsements, advertising dollars and increased tarnish to the reputation and the NFL brand is huge. As one NFL official recently commented, “one arrest is too many”. Given the higher number this off season it is apparent that current policies to control player misconduct off the field are falling well short of effective.
When compared to other professionals earning, at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of dollars while working for a thriving corporate enterprise, the bad behavior seems even more statistically out of normal range. Most corporate employees don’t enjoy the level of notoriety that place them close enough to the brands identity to do the harm that a badly behaved professional football player does to his teams and the leagues brand. Football, while a business, is at its core is a sport, one that is played by young men from the time they are old enough to walk and run. Viewership is part of the American fabric and a pastime for millions of men and women across the America and around the world. Few businesses command the price for their products and even fewer generate billions of dollars from the secondary marketing of team and player apparel, merchandise and memorabilia. Unlike your average or even high performing executive level players in the traditional corporate environment, NFL players are lauded, applauded and revered by NFL consumers, almost to the level of worship. The NFL earned a reported $9.5 billion in revenue last year, any tarnish to the brands promise equates to a significant loss of dollars and missed marketing opportunities from sponsors who are becoming weary of the player misadventures.
The effects of recent bad news on the long term health of the NFL is difficult to predict with any degree of certainty, and even though the Hernandez case will fade from people’s memory eventually, many parents and fans, even those who love the game, are beginning to reevaluate the measure of importance they place on the sport in their daily lives. The league’s 32 teams expect modest growth this year because of the lingering uncertainty over the economy, according to a January report from Bloomberg News. The problem of player’s misbehavior isn’t likely to contribute to increasing those numbers and may have a very nulling effect on the games value, even for the most ardent supporters. The NFL leadership is promising action to address the issue with talk of increased behavior training, punitive fines to those offenders and even bonuses to players who successfully walk the line.
The League is in full damage control crisis mode. They are committed to protecting their most precious assets, the NFL logo aka The Shield. Team and League leaders are attempting to get out in front of the problem to appease the fans, customers, business partners including television networks and the scribes, those mythmakers who create “perceived perception” about football, football players, football owners, football coaches and the trappings of the industry. Failing to curb the problem will ultimately result in significant damage to one of the most successful and venerable brands in history.