Just how successful is the NFL? This year Forbes estimates that the average NFL team is worth US$ 898 million. That's a 212 percent increase over just eight years ago. NFL broadcast rights are so sought after that TV networks routinely enter into rights contracts with no conceivable expectation of making back the costs with advertising.
From constant brandsturbation of its own heroes and lore to embracing—instead of treating as a threat—the fantasy-football craze, the NFL's success is a result of extraordinary brand management. A profit-sharing structure has also prevented teams from forming the insurmountable dynasties that tend to drive smaller-market teams to hopelessness and eventual fan abandonment. (See, especially: Major League Baseball).
But recent ongoing battles between the brand's NFL Network and the cable TV providers that refuse to carry the network (forcing many fans to miss some games), ticket-price increases for the third straight year (USA Today reported an average rise of 5.6 percent in 2006), a push for international expansion (which would decrease the amount of home games in an already anemic 16-game regular season) and a marketing strategy embracing women (icky), have some fans looking for a yellow penalty flag.
(Whoops! We repeat, no more sports metaphors. We mean it this time.)
The most immediate brand threat is the cable TV scuffle, the crux of which involves how the NFL Network would be delivered to televisions: the cable companies prefer to add it to its optional sports package, while the NFL wants it included with the basic-cable lineup. (Satellite systems including DirecTV and Dish Network currently carry the NFL Network.)
Both the NFL and cable companies are aware of the stakes and have taken the battle to all available PR channels, including an arena unheard of a decade ago: websites (separate from their corporate websites) that promote their point of view. To get a good idea of the kind of posturing and blame-gaming (not to mention almost laughable presentation), one needn't look further than www.iwantnflnetwork.com, which is published by the NFL. Melding one-sided reasoning and rabid cheerleading, the site contains sections such as "Facts," "What the Experts Are Saying" (that is, newspaper blurbs that favor the NFL Network), and "Get Real, Time Warner." (Time Warner is a cable provider.)
For Time Warner Cable's completely Bizarro-world rejoinder—with funnier Photoshopping—see www.nflgetreal.com, which has its own lists of "truths" and newspaper blurbs that paint a negative picture of the NFL Network (and even more bizarre is that each runs its own self-serving quote from the New York Times).
It's likely that fans aren't fooled by the PR efforts of two of the most lucrative businesses in the US. The popular football-centric blog Kissing Suzy Kolber recently laid out the basic situation in terms most NFL fans can understand, and probably agree with. The post is titled "Your Cable Company Has Decided To Cuff Your Ball-Gagged @$$ To A Chair And Bring In The Gimp," and if you don't mind language recalling a drunken New York Giants fan watching his team blow a three-touchdown lead, you can read the post in full. In sum, amid the scatology, the writer blames both parties for the stalemate.
The NFL Network pooch-screw comes atop recent announcements that the brand will reach out further to an international audience, including a game in China in 2007. A wider audience is certainly something all brands want, but if expansion comes at the expense of existing customers (in this case, old-school fans), it is not necessarily a good thing over the long term.
Meanwhile, for the predominantly male NFL fan base, the NFL's focus on marketing to women—including licensed apparel available in colors that could be considered, ahem, "female friendly"—probably remains mostly a punch line to a joke that brandchannel can't print without being ensnared by parental online filters. But on top of the NFL Network snafu and the loss of more and more home games, one feels the need to remind the NFL that strong brands abuse or ignore their hardcore, loyal bases at their own peril.
For a brand that is so image-conscious as to almost publicly deny the existence of Las Vegas (despite the wide availability of weekly betting odds and the Super Bowl attracting more gamblers than nearly any other sporting event), all of this represents a potentially serious problem. To not reassure its most ardent, long-term and oft long-suffering fans (the ones who buy replica Lawrence Taylor and Joe Montana jerseys costing $200 and up) that it has their best interests in mind is like substituting a Super Bowl quarterback…
...or is like a FIFA champion coach switching to...
...or a Grand Slam winner...
...or like Tiger...
...or is like the Chicago Cubs...
(We'd best end here, as we have been sacked by sports metaphors.)