The NFL’s looming PR disaster

August 26, 2014
stadium stairs

Could Mark Cuban be right? Could the NFL being sowing the seeds of its own destruction? Seems highly implausible. As the most profitable sports league in the world with $1 billion of profit, it’s hard to believe anything can derail this American institution. Cuban, though, contends that the NFL’s own greed and its drive to expand TV coverage could in 10 years erode the brand and run it into the ground.

Well that might just happen sooner than later if this preseason is any indication of the NFL’s flagrant disregard for its own traditions, legacy, and the power of its brand. What fans witnessed this summer suggests that the NFL is heading full steam ahead with a product that, if the course doesn’t change, will be nearly unrecognizable to fans when the season opens September 4, 2014.

From the looks of it, the NFL wants offense, and plenty of it, and it could care less if it has to fundamentally change the game — be damned the fans. Through four brutally unwatchable pre-season games, league refs threw a record number of flags, slowing the game to a crawl and diminishing the veracity of the game. League officials suggest that these rules have always been on the books and the only change is that now they are enforcing them.

It’s a high-risk argument that undermines the league’s own validity. If the rules were always on the books, what were we watching for all of those years? A crap shoot, with penalties on every play and outcomes determined by which ones refs decided to enforce? We already have that in the NBA.

And it’s a horrible brand position that opens the NFL to the slow corrosive effect of fan disillusion. Sure, there are other rationales — like player safety. But what’s a safer play? Allowing a receiver to run unimpeded down field or letting a defensive back slow him with incidental contact? Half-speed hits have to be safer than full speed contact. After paying out $800 million in the player brain injury settlement, the NFL is groping for solutions, and not even considering the unintended consequences.

Then, there’s the influence of fantasy football players and their love of all things offense. So give them more, right? But that’s the exact same rationale that nearly destroyed Coke back in the 1980s. Confronted with taste tests showing that consumers liked the taste of Pepsi more than original Coke in one on one comparisons, Coke came up with the sweeter New Coke.

But guess what? Coke devotees didn’t drink Coke alongside Pepsi. They consumed it as part of a cultural milieu, based on tradition and meaning. Coke misjudged the context of their sample, the same way the NFL is reading way too much into fantasy by allowing it to impact that actual game.

In the end, perhaps the NFL will renege and the pre-season served as merely a warning to the Richard Sherman show at Super Bowl XLVIII. Come opening day, we will have just moved the clock back a bit, making defensive players more aware of the five yard chuck rule on a receiver and lineman more conscious of keeping hands away from the face.

But that’s not what the league is saying. In comment after comment, they claim this is the new, new of pro football. If so, it spells the first step in a brand collapse. An arrogance that will trigger a PR disaster if two or three weeks into the season, the NFL turns into flag football. Turn back now, Commissioner Goodell. If the game needs to be tweaked, do it for the good of the fan, not in a vacuum that sucks the entertainment value out of a game we all love.

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