Maybe enough digital ink has been spilled already, but here’s the thing… something else showed up in my newsfeed recently that made me think, “You’re kidding, right? No one’s buying this.” (It was the AdAge Article: Out-of-Home Viewing Erased the NFL’s Ratings Deficit Last Season.) As product people, some of us focus on features, functions, benefits. And others on marketing. However, all of us should at least be interested in marketing and what the NFL faces now is a really interesting marketing business case. Whatever your level of interest in football might be, or your belief in some of the league’s issues, the legal monopoly that is the NFL has massive economic impact. While there’s some argument as to whether a stadium or Super Bowl has net positive impact on a city, (when you add in taxpayer subsidized stadium builds, etc.), football nevertheless generates massive economic activity overall. As a result, the challenges the marketplace faces should be of interest from a marketing perspective.
The Ratings Numbers Game
In the ad age article Out-of-Home Viewing Erased the NFL’s Ratings Deficit Last Season, among other things, this claim is made, “Any discrepancy between the OOH-bolstered NFL ratings and the vanilla, or TV-only, year-earlier ratings was effectively a rounding error” Without even sniffing to hard, it seems relatively easy to smell the… oh let’s call it rotten eggs. (This is a family internet after all.) C’mon now! Really?
They do go on to say this, “Of course, NFL audiences may still have slipped last season, because we don’t know how many people watched in bars, restaurants and the like during previous campaigns.” Well, I’ll tell you how many people watched in bars and restaurants in the past. And I don’t need any serious research to do it. The answer is “About the Same.” Why? Because leaving aside natural business growth due to population increase or whatever, it’s not like bars or restaurants have magically held more people over the years. Sometimes a game being on in the background is because one guy asked the bartender to turn it on and no one else cares. Other times the whole crowd may be there just for the game. Either way, those venues only have a certain capacity.
In short, adding viewership in bars and restaurants and claiming, however weakly, that this makes television ratings drops a rounding error is disingenuine at best. Adding live streaming numbers may be fair game. Still, that’s going to be – my opinion – a drop in the bucket. Live streamers have to do some work to get to content and that’s your hard core fans in any case. That cohort has likely not lost a lot of viewers. Maybe some, but that’s not likely the core problem.
We Know the Earlier Pre-Political Headwinds
There were obviously multiple headwinds facing the NFL prior to the political controversies kicked off by player Colin Kaepernick taking a knee to make a statement during the National Anthem at a 2016 pre-season game. Concerns about player concussions have been growing for years. Perhaps the biggest problem there is parents not wanting their kids to play the sport. Domestic abuse and other illegalities on the part of players have always been a concern. Even if an analysis of percentages seems to show NFL football players are actually less likely on average to be committing such infractions. (Of course, they just get more news time when they do, which could easily skew perspective.)
Anyway, this was and probably remains one of those “death by a thousand cuts” things. None of this ever historically seemed to have caused a precipitous cliff dive of ratings and loyalty. Perhaps, however, it did create a bit of an opposite type of brand halo effect. That is, a background cognitive shadow of negativity over the whole enterprise. And this backdrop is not a healthy place for a brand. I’ve said elsewhere one of my favorite definitions of a brand is that “A Brand is a Promise Made Over Time.” Whatever that promise is; features, functions, benefits, emotional context… it ebbs and flows with the collective touch points with brand that are experienced by the marketplace. This isn’t rocket science. If for years your favorite restaurant has had perfect service, the one time the new waiter screws up isn’t likely going to turn you off the brand. However, if you notice the bathroom is now always dirty and the portions are getting smaller, that may be the last straw.
Essences of the Current Problem
It seems that the reasonings for those who aren’t watching out of protest are at least somewhat understood. Maybe. But there may be something else going on as well. The following – at least seem to be – some of the core reasons why at least a certain cohort is avoiding the game.
- An initial knee-jerk reaction to counter-protest the take a knee for the Anthem movement.
- A philosophical disagreement where the purpose of the Anthem is seen as being respectful of fallen soldiers, not necessarily as jingoistic Americanism or something. As a result, even some who think, “yeah, free speech,” think this isn’t the place.
- A philosophical disagreement that’s more core.
- The player privilege perspective… “OK, you want to talk identity politics? You protestors are highly paid entertainers essentially slapping our values in the face.”
- The Hypocrisy: Players can face penalties for overly celebrating a touchdown in the end zone. Huh? They’re all pumped up in that moment! But they can’t exercise their free speech rights and do just a little dance? They can get in trouble for yelling at a referee. But don’t they have a free speech right for this as well? While it maybe didn’t happen, some players risked fines when they put 9/11 remembrance messages on their shoes in 2016. So the only place the NFL seems to say a player is just asserting free speech rights is when something is politically anti-U.S.
These are some of the arguments I’ve seen for why some decided to protest by not watching. OK. We’ve got those down. And there’s been multiple studies about NFL viewership declines, some of which is due to Anthem protestors. Here’s one NFL viewership drop study reported from the Washington Post.
But, are there even more fundamental and insidious things going on as well? Things the NFL, as a marketing entity, just doesn’t seem to understand and is not managing well?
- The Obvious Marketplace: Without even doing any deep analysis, it seems fair to just assume on the face of things that a lot of more hardcore football fans tend towards the political right. And this Reuters article seems to agree. Though this Business Insider article puts NFL viewers more centrist to center-right. Let’s say the typical viewer marketplace is only half, or even less, politically right leaning. Well, obviously something approaching half or more of your audience is now unhappy with you. Still, is that enough to turn you away from the game?
- Suspending Disbelief: Now, here’s where I finally get to my point and inject yet another theory into the mix. I could be very, very wrong here. And it’s not like I’ve gone out and studied this. But, this is my little blog and occasional LinkedIn article that maybe four of you read, so here it is… Football is just entertainment. We all know that. But somehow sports get a special pedestal beyond typical spectator entertainment. There’s an emotional attachment to our home teams or favorite teams that’s beyond other types of entertainment. Which is ironic given it’s not like most of the players typically grow up anywhere near the cities for which they end up playing. And when we go to a game or watch a game, and the players go political, they collapse this suspension of disbelief that allows us to see the game as more than just entertainment. Or perhaps it makes us see it as something other than entertainment. That is, they collapse the bubble. For sports, we seem to get more involved than what we think of and perhaps feel when we watch some sitcom or drama or whatever. (Don’t think so? How many entertainment venues have a whole industry selling Jerseys and hats and foam fingers?) Whether you’re for or against the political statements of some of these players, they remove some significant enjoyment of the game because you can no longer just use the game as your escapist entertainment. It’s kind of the same when actors/actresses do this. It doesn’t matter if you agree or not, the idea that their persona is now wrapped up with something other than a character portrayal might be distracting. As a result, avoidance or distaste might not necessarily even be some big political statement. It’s just less enjoyment of the product.
So Where Are We Now?
I’ve heard it said that the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. It’s the point in a failing relationship when at least one party says to the other, perhaps with a sigh… “you know, I really just don’t care anymore.” And it’s not said with any malicious intent to hurt the other person. It’s just true. The emotion isn’t negative. Or positive. It’s just gone. What I believe is happening with at least some significant number of former football viewers is just that. The hardcore fans will be there. But the casual fans who kind of watched because it was an excuse to grab some chicken wings and relax on a Sunday? They’re maybe gone for good. Because they partly don’t have the enjoyment anymore and they partly – after avoiding a few games out of protest – just found they didn’t miss it and they found other things to do. Or maybe they didn’t stop watching to strongly protest, or counter-protest or whatever. They just didn’t want to think about the political BS. They just wanted to watch a game. And now, whether it’s having friends over or just surfing online while watching, there’s going to be political arguments or discussion. When all that viewer wanted was some downtime. And maybe a chicken wing. Or ten. And maybe a cheese stick. And I think we know what I’m having for dinner.
It’s too late for the NFL to do what it probably should have done. It should have made a powerful pro-America statement and fined or otherwise penalized these players for their on field behavior while still supporting their free speech rights and thoughts. It’s possible to do both, though it’s a tricky line. They could have just said, “This has no place on the field. If players want to protest in any other venue, that’s fine and we support their free speech rights and applaud their attempts to right wrongs. But the field is not where this goes on.” This way, they could have supported their players free speech rights, but not alienated half their marketplace and fanned more flames on this debate. They could have tried to deftly walk the tightrope to maintain the tough-guy image and still support political correctness, whatever that is. They may have failed, but it would have made sense to try from a strategic messaging point of view. What they’ve done instead has only served to take minds off the game and into politics. And escaping from all the political nonsense may be one of the reasons fans used to like go watch the games! Maybe there was no way out and either response of the NFL would just have caused as much controversy. But what do they do now?
Whatever the public statements may be, the NFL probably has good data on who they’ve lost. And why. If it takes individual chats with problem players or making clear what are the NFL positions vs. those of players, they’d better do it fast. As in this year or next. They have enough challenges as it is. Their goal has to be to remove the NFL from the political discussion completely insofar as that’s possible. They need to fully understand that the venerable Temple of Football is really just another form of entertainment. And when people start mentally putting the sport in other categories, that’s probably a negative. Because when at least some significant cohort of their market no longer loves or hates them, but just doesn’t care… as in truly just doesn’t care and goes off to do other things, that’s a hard to impossible customer recovery effort.
And So Then…
As product people who are usually also marketers, watching what the NFL is experiencing should serve as a great case study in brand management and messaging. I have no certainty if my thoughts presented here are right or wrong. They’re just some perspectives on what could be causal factors in some aspects of what the NFL and its customers are experiencing. Personally, I’m more involved in systems that do useful things as opposed to more entertainment type products. But even so, all products face marketplace perception issues. And watching how others manage challenging real and perceptual problems in their marketplace should be instructive.
On a personal note then, I wish the NFL well, though I’m kind of in the “don’t care” too much camp. I like football and I enjoyed watching. But I’m in that camp where I don’t love watching either. It was a fun thing to watch on occasion and sometimes I still will. I’m not avoiding watching out of protest, it’s just that a lot of the fun seems to have been sucked out of it is all. Maybe one day I’ll go back to it. I was a NY Jets fan since I was five, until they signed Vick, which is another story, but in some ways part of the same narrative. Anyway, it’s not like football is ice hockey. Which is, of course, a better sport that’s much more fun to watch and play whether that’s the New York Rangers or my old-guy-we-think-we-can-still-play team. Say it with me now, “Let’s Go Rangers!”