Is It Time For Brands to Dump the NFL?

Despite its sordid history of missteps and scandals, the NFL has done nothing but thrive. Could the league’s unprecedented winning streak finally be coming to an end?

(I’m writing this as I watch the Crimson Tide pull off perhaps the best onside kick in history in the 2016 NCAA Championship. I was pulling hard for Clemson, but at some point you have to give it to Nick Saban. The man is a great coach.)

As we exit wild-card weekend, I see one thing becoming more and more clear: the NFL is long-term screwed. Not because the wild-card games sucked this weekend (they did — all four). But because the NFL’s luck is finally about to run out.

This sounds ludicrous to most people. I know, because they keep telling me I’m insane. But I really do believe that the tipping point is upon us, and if your brand uses the NFL to reach your targets, it’s time to diversify.

Everyone knows that the NFL has long been fueled by greed and a startling indifference to the well-being of its players. Neither of those things has impeded the league’s ascendancy to its place as our biggest, richest, most popular sport. It is a juggernaut. It is our secular religion. The unfortunate actions of its owners, coaches, and players have been speed bumps, if that.

In the fallout from the Ray Rice video, sponsors including Anheuser-Busch and Pepsi issued statements… but kept the dollars flowing.

That’s because the American people love the NFL like nothing else, and they’re continuing to tune in at record levels. It’s one of the only safe bets in a fragmented media environment. Look no further for proof than the league’s bonus to each of its 32 teams at the end of its most recent fiscal year: $226 million (tax-free, of course. The NFL is a nonprofit).

So we’ve all grown accustomed to the cheating, the steroids, the violence against women, the nightclub shootings… even the occasional murder. After all, we really, really love our football. We’ve all agreed that a few bad apples don’t necessarily spoil the bunch. Or something. After all, those bad guys are on other teams. Right?

Given the league’s Teflon coating, recent news that the NFL has backed out of its commitment to funding a Boston University study on the relationship between football and brain disease will come as no surprise. The announcement by the league went largely unnoticed — much like “Concussion”, starring Will Smith. Traumatic brain injuries don’t really deliver at the box office.

“Don’t be stupid.”

I hear that a lot. People like to remind me of the NFL’s total domination of the American sports landscape, and that only an idiot would bet against them. But that’s exactly what I’m doing. The NFL’s run has been a great one, but it’s over and the decline is here.

There are two basic reasons for my pessimism: First, you can’t have football without players. According to a Bloomberg poll, for the first time, a majority of parents are disallowing their children to play full-contact football. This new majority is joined by some surprising people: Mike Ditka and LeBron James have joined President Obama in saying that they wouldn’t let their kids play full-contact football.

Parents have good reason to be afraid. This season alone, eight teenagers have already died from injuries either directly or indirectly attributable to high school (!) football. This doesn’t even account for the hidden-but-cumulative effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which can only be diagnosed during an autopsy — as it was in the cases of Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, to name just two of way too many.

Another new trend: For the first time, high school football participation rates began to decline precipitously in 2014, with the exception of the South, where they went up. There are a number of socioeconomic implications here, but that’s going to have to wait for a different post.

From those conversations where I am the token idiot, I know that a lot of people are struggling with their love of football and the moral quandary therein. Dumb people like to say that the players are all wealthy and that they understand the risks, and we know that’s just not true.

But nice, normal, smart people are starting to freak out too. A common refrain among the concerned-but-hopeful is “we need better helmets!” As reported in The Sporting News, though, the helmets are the problem. What football needs, at all levels, is to either eliminate the helmets, or embrace helmets that crumple.

Of course, this doesn’t fix the NFL’s real issue. What the fans want from football is violence. The sights and sounds of watching perfect physical specimens smash into each other at high speeds is the appeal of football. Its rise to cultural dominance happened in parallel to the arrival of bigger, faster, stronger players. We watch for the spectacular hits, not for capable management of the game clock. Pandora’s Box is wide open.

We’ve already seen fans livid at the volume of flags being thrown this season in the NFL. The league is attempting to tamp down the violence without ruining the version of the game that drove its popularity. And it’s not going to work.

What does this have to do with marketing and your brand? Potentially, a lot. Some brands are so intertwined with the NFL that they’ll face real challenges when the bottom starts to drop out. The NFL delivers reach, frequency, and audience engagement in real time. How many media can say that in early 2016?

It’s tempting to look at the NFL’s current dominance and project it into the foreseeable future. You only have to look at the NBA after Michael Jordan retired to see why that’s wrong. The league went from record high ratings in the ’97-’98 season to record lows only five years later. They still haven’t come close to their former peak. This drop will happen gradually for the NFL, but only until it happens suddenly.

The other half of the argument, of course, is whether or not it makes sense to continue to associate your brand with a league that knowingly kills its players. That may sound harsh, but it has the benefit of being accurate. Yes, brands expressed concern when the Ray Rice video emerged and the NFL had only levied a two-game suspension. But they stuck it out. With the benefit of foresight, will brands want to be associated with a sport that is going to generate real and sustained outrage?

Perhaps it makes sense to look to the all-in examples of Accenture and Subway. Do you think the marketing leadership of either brand was stoked to have everything built around Tiger or Jared? So why build everything around Roger Goodell?

So I’m calling it. NFL ratings are going to drop. NFL outrage is going to go up. The only questions are a) how quickly, and b) whether you’ve got a contingency plan in place. If you need to move light beer, full-size pickups, or wireless service (for starters), it’s time to consider your options.

Like what you read? Give Patrick Godfrey a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.