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A League of Their Own

by David Rachell
9 10 2014
About every sports league in the world has had its own share of scandals and PR crisis. Since the NFL is the biggest sports league in the largest economy in the world, it is a fair statement that the league is one of the most powerful on the planet.

Perhaps the biggest story to come out of 2014 might end up being that this was the year that started the downfall of the NFL reign.  One only needs to look at two main areas to confirm whether the league stumbles; its viewership and corporate sponsorship.  If viewership and attendance begin to decline, it’s assured that NFL sponsors may resist continuing the relationship and TV ratings will result in lower fees paid by the networks. As sponsors and ratings wane, money tightens and the quality on the field lags.

Player concussions, followed by medical issues among former players and the addition of HGH testing among current players began the consternation last year.  Understand that the Ray Rice incident was not the beginning of the domestic violence issue, but the culmination of many incidents in the league for years. High profile players, like Adrian Peterson, have only recently exacerbated this issue.  A research report by FiveThirtyEight.com website confirms that the NFL players do have an inordinately high rate of domestic violence and confirms the league has a legitimate issue on its hands

Some NFL sponsors have been critical. AB InBev has a $1 billion stake in the NFL and stated they’re keeping a watchful eye on the situation – meaning the NFL better do something about it before the home of Budweiser considers changes. Others have suspended their sponsorship, like Radisson Hotels and P&G’s Crest toothpaste.  Their decision has resulted in greater positive buzz for those brands.  Radisson Hotels saw a huge jump in positive traffic in their social media space within 48 hours of its declaration. Other sponsors, like Cover Girl, have been steadfast in their support of the league. 

Initial indications show that the NFL is still experiencing viewership growth.  More people are attending games and all indications are that there’s an NFL growth spurt, financially and in popularity, despite the controversy. So, do sponsors really have a responsibility to the public to remove themselves from a situation that is controversial when the NFL’s fan base continues to grow?  Do sponsors that react quickly garner greater results when removing themselves from a crisis?  Or, do sponsors that work with the property (in this case – the NFL) to improve the situation result in future reward?

There’s a lesson to be learned not only about how the NFL handles the situation, but the reaction to the NFL by its fans and the general public.  A Reuters/Ipsos poll among Americans revealed that more than half believe that major sponsors should end their relationship with the league for the season or permanently.  Yet, as one person put it - "The only way to hurt the NFL and get its attention is with money," said one poll respondent. But the responded indicated he was still watching pro football on television. "It hasn't gotten to the point to where I would not watch it.”  See more here.

The NFL’s actions over the next few months may just seal the fate of its power for the next few years and interest among fans.  Should the NFL begin to lose its sponsor grip, look for other leagues and major events within NFL markets to find ways to increase their relationships with companies.  Properties need to prepare for how they can engage possible sponsors in a similar fashion, offering amenities that mirror the NFL model.

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