NFL will have to work to salvage reputation after recent scandals
Public confidence in the NFL has taken some big hits in recent weeks, and commissioner Roger Goodell would be wise not to ignore the potential damage.
Times staff reporter
Inside sports business
So far, the NFL has escaped with only a few dents in the Teflon armor surrounding a brand the league itself calls “The Shield.”
Major sponsors like Marriott, Anheuser-Busch and PepsiCo have issued statements expressing concern but are standing by the league after domestic- and child-abuse scandals involving Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Ray McDonald and Greg Hardy. But those who make their living monitoring the longterm implications of corporate image damage say the league is hardly in open field just yet.
A new survey by New York-based research firm Brand Keys, which has done past consulting work for the NFL, found the league dropped from first to third place in “fan loyalty’’ as a result of the Rice scandal. Brand Keys president Robert Passikoff says the survey of 3,200 people — spread evenly throughout the NFL’s 32 cities — shows the league trails MLB and the NBA, and where it goes from here will play a huge part in whether it recovers.
“When you have a high degree of loyalty to begin with, people tend to give you the benefit of the doubt,’’ Passikoff says. “But it isn’t a bottomless well. It’s not a magic wand. Loyalty only extends so far.’’
Once loyalty is lost, he adds, it shows up in things like TV ratings and merchandise sales more so than in ticket purchases. It makes sponsors question whether standing by the league was such a good idea.
In other words, it becomes a long-term problem that can erode finances even as supportive female fans wear Rice jerseys in Baltimore, and as fans tailgate in Peterson garb in Minnesota while waving a makeshift switch for the cameras.
Some of this sounds like the wishful thinking you often get from those wanting to take NFL commissioner Roger Goodell down a notch. Having sat in a private conference room with Goodell and about two dozen others in April, I can tell you the arrogance radiating off him was palpable and made it easy to understand why some people despise him.
But if arrogance was grounds for dismissal in pro sports, you’d have to kick out three-quarters of the owners, general managers, coaches and players. Companies investing millions in a brand don’t care whether people behind “The Shield” are jerks, as long as the public tolerates them.
And in that regard, the NFL has been like the star player who bursts into a megawatt smile the minute a TV camera shows up but is otherwise a surly sourpuss. Fans might know about the dynamic, but unless they see that player cussing somebody out or complaining about having to carry his own bags, they’re willing to suspend reality in favor of the image.
That’s kind of how it was with the NFL until now.
Most fans knew the NFL had a dark side, but were willing to ignore it in favor of good football. Now, the darkness is out in the open for the world to see and judge.
“People regard this as the league protecting their own,’’ Passikoff says. “And that either the league is not acting in good faith, or that they did not act properly.’’
Richard Torrenzano, chairman of The Torrenzano Group, a reputation-management firm, agrees the NFL can’t simply duck behind “The Shield” this time. To do so risks inviting congressional oversight hearings, hearings by local elected officials on deals with some of their teams, even more negative media coverage and the kind of spotlight that is extremely bad for business.
“This is something that has really affected the soul of America,’’ Torrenzano says. “And I think that soul basically says that we play by fair rules and we don’t beat up women and we don’t beat up children.
“And when that happens, people tend to revolt. And I think that’s what you have on your hands. I think they’re going to be given a chance to change it, but they have to change it quickly.’’
Torrenzano said Goodell is taking the proper steps now. He cites the naming of former FBI director Robert Mueller to investigate the league’s handling of the Rice affair as a critical step.
The result of that inquiry will be key, he says, as will implementing changes. Both Torrenzano and Passikoff say the league will regain shaken fan confidence if it shows humility and rectifies mistakes.
They also agree all leagues can learn from the missteps of the NBA and somewhat-arrogant former commissioner David Stern throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. A league that peaked in popularity in the 1980s took years to live down the image hits from the Latrell Sprewell choking incident in 1997, a 2004 player-fan brawl in Detroit and numerous off-court scandals.
“We always want to give people in this country a second chance,’’ Torrenzano says. “If you do your penance and your time and you’re apologetic about it, we always want to give them a second chance. But that second chance doesn’t happen immediately.’’
In other words, Goodell and the NFL have some penance to deliver. That will mean lowering “The Shield” a bit in favor of a chastened, humbled league that fans and sponsors will want to keep buying into.
Geoff Baker is a sports enterprise and investigative reporter who writes a column on sports business. Baker: email@example.com or 206-464-8286