Kellogg Magazine  |  Spring/Summer 2015



NFL Offseason Goals:
Repairing the brand

Personal misconduct scandals blitzed the league,
but Tim Calkins says it can recover

The NFL built its empire through deft play on the field and savvy marketing off it. But when an avalanche of domestic abuse incidents involving standout players hit the league last season, its handling of the fallout proved clumsy and daft.

In terms of brand management, the NFL fumbled the ball.

“The NFL has had an unusually difficult time dealing with all of its different reports of domestic violence, and it’s facing a significant brand crisis,” said Tim Calkins, a longtime NFL observer and clinical professor of marketing at Kellogg. “Companies love to be associated with great brands. And if the NFL brand becomes associated with domestic violence, that taints the league.”

Tim Calkins

Things move so fast, and with social media a lot happens that’s outside of one’s control. But brands have to move quickly to get ahead of things.

In 2014, Forbes estimated the NFL’s 32 franchises to be valued at $46 billion, and the league reportedly raked in $1.02 billion in sponsorship revenue during the 2013 season — both record highs.

However, that windfall fell into jeopardy when the league slapped Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice with a modest two-game suspension after he knocked his fiancée unconscious inside a hotel elevator. When TMZ released video footage of the incident, the NFL changed Rice’s suspension to an indefinite one before that penalty was eventually overturned in arbitration.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings suspended running back Adrian Peterson after he was accused of child abuse, then reinstated him, only to immediately reverse course when sponsors complained.

When people evaluate organizations, Calkins said, they look for expertise, transparency, empathy and commitment. But he argued that the NFL’s response to the incidents fell short in all regards. The league didn’t display expertise or transparency when it issued inconsistent penalties based on unclear reasoning, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell failed to deliver a heartfelt apology to the public and the league’s owners didn’t show a clear commitment to making significant changes in leadership or policy.

To rehabilitate its brand, Calkins advises that the NFL do three things.

“First, it has to take the issues seriously,” he explained. “It’s always tempting to think it’s going to go away on its own, but that’s really not the optimal response. The league needs to show that it’s taken the necessary steps to address the issues.

“Second, the NFL needs to put in place policies that are clear and consistently enforced. And third, it needs to create positive news to offset the negative. To do that, the league needs to not just talk about positive initiatives but actually put them in progress. It’s like a political candidate. If you’re accused of being corrupt, you have to do something to change that perception.

“Managing a brand today is a huge challenge,” added Calkins. “Things move so fast, and with social media a lot happens that’s outside of one’s control. But brands have to move quickly to get ahead of things.”

Otherwise, they risk taking a reputation hit, like the NFL.