The National Football League is more than a game or a sports league; it’s so ingrained in American culture, that even its missteps or major safety concerns about the game itself are quickly forgotten by both fans and sponsors.
In recent years, tens of millions of dedicated fans have stuck by the NFL as it has weathered domestic violence arrests, questions about the long-term effects of concussions suffered during play, and, most recently, protests of the national anthem by key players.
"The league has staked claim to a day of the week where friends, family, and neighbors get together to forget about everything else and enjoy each other's company while doing something they feel strongly about: watching their team play," says Jason Teitler, chair of the Fan Experience sports marketing practice at Burson-Marsteller.
And the NFL’s presence in Americans’ lives goes beyond the game. NFL merchandise is seemingly everywhere during the season, while fans and non-fans alike play in fantasy leagues. That pervasiveness gives the league the benefit of the doubt in many fans’ eyes.
"The NFL has become an immersive experience for fans," says Shawn McBride, EVP at Ketchum Sports and Entertainment. "It really becomes part of a person’s identity."
The most serious issue facing the NFL is the connection of repeated concussions to the degenerative brain disease CTE. However, experts say that fans understand the dangers involved in a contact-heavy sport, which results in many overlooking or ignoring the concussion issue.
The league’s stance on traumatic brain injury has evolved. For years, it denied a link or provided disputed evidence against the connection between repeated hits to the head and severe brain disease. It was only in March that an NFL executive acknowledged a link publicly for the first time.
And while there was a storm of outrage following a New York Times investigation into the NFL’s CTE research in March, many fans quickly moved on.
"There was a lot of criticism, and certainly people feel very strongly about it," Teitler says. "Now there is real data and science and they can’t deny it, so what can the NFL do from a league standpoint to improve science around impact and raise awareness about prevention? For a league, they are taking a lot of responsibility to do what they can to shed some light on head injuries."
The NFL has invested in programs to prevent head injuries, such as USA Football’s Heads Up Football that promotes safe tackling, and in companies that are trying to improve helmet technology. The league has also added sideline specialists, who immediately evaluate players for concussions.
"What does it mean if parents are taking their kids out of football?" McBride asks. "They need to keep the conveyor belt going. It’s smart business to do whatever they can do keep the sport as robust as possible."
However, if the Denver Broncos’ win over the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night is any indication, questions about the league’s handling of head injuries aren’t going away. The morning after the game, many journalists are questioning why Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, last season’s most valuable player, wasn’t checked for a concussion after repeated blows to the head. (The Broncos won 21-20). And while ratings were down from last year’s opener, the game was the second-highest-rated season kick-off to date.
Distance from individual player controversies
The league has also been able to largely avoid blame for controversies surrounding individual players.
McBride likens the NFL, teams, and players to the separation in government by federal, state, and local levels. This means that overarching issues such as CTE tend to fall squarely on the league, which is also the governing body for football. Yet other issues like performance-enhancing drug use and Colin Kaepernick’s protest during the national anthem draw more attention to specific players and teams.
While exceptions include outrage over the lenient punishment for former Baltimore Raven Ray Rice or the NFL’s handling of "deflategate," public outcry is often focused on the players themselves for individual transgressions.
"If we think of the NFL as almost a parent company to the various teams, the teams or ‘brands’ are front-and-center with consumers, not the parent company," explains Katie Sprehe, director of reputation research at APCO Insights. "The NFL has been able to dodge some of these controversies as the various teams are absorbing much of the heat."
For instance, in the aftermath of Kaepernick’s protest during the national anthem, some fans were quick to burn his jersey, but few denounced the league over the player’s protest. The NFL mostly stayed out of the controversy, issuing a simple, one-sentence statement in response.
.@NFL comment on Kaepernick's anthem stance: "Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the National Anthem."— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 27, 2016
And while #BoycottNFL trended on Twitter on Friday morning after a Broncos’ linebacker followed Kaepernick’s lead and kneeled during the national anthem the night before, many tweets mentioning the hashtag called other users out for hypocrisy for not being willing to sit out NFL Sundays over concussions or player misconduct.
I can think of 99 reasons to #boycottNFL but Colin Kaepernick ain't one.— Nubyjas Wilborn (@nwilborn19) September 9, 2016
However, Sprehe adds that the NFL should act proactively to make sure many smaller, individual controversies don’t weigh down the brand at large.
"The teams or ‘brands’ are getting weighed down by controversy after controversy and the NFL needs to start getting ahead of these issues to prevent overall erosion of the reputation," Sprehe added.
For sponsors, reward outweighs risk
Marketers are usually wary of organizations that attract controversy, but nearly all of the NFL’s sponsors have stuck with it through tough times. The league has deals with PepsiCo brands, Visa, Microsoft, and Ford, among many others, and brands are willing to fork over upwards of $5 million for a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl.
"They recognize that the NFL, despite having some real formidable blemishes, is one of the most powerful mechanisms to reach an elusive market: sports fans," Teitler says. "Brands realize this is one of the great opportunities for them to get their messages out there to a large audience."
Household-name sponsors also help keep the NFL’s reputation strong, such as Campbell’s Soup, which has promoted the NFL with its own commercials.
"The league has 26 blue chip brands that are associated with them that are actively promoting the entity," explains Bret Werner, chief client officer at MWW. "These brands are going out doing traditional TV ads, online and grassroots for the league. What other brand has that marketing power?"