While ticket prices to NFL games remain relatively unchanged overall, there is mounting evidence the league’s brand is taking a significant hit.
Those seeking reasons behind Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell last week taking harder-line stances toward player anthem protests might look at branding data coming back the league’s way.
While ticket prices to games remain relatively unchanged overall, there is mounting evidence the league’s brand is taking a significant hit. According to Morning Consult branding intelligence data, published last week in The New York Times, the NFL is now one of the most “polarizing’’ brands in the nation — right up there with Trump Hotels, CNN, NBC News and Fox News.
That’s not where any sports league aspires to be, given how their fan bases tend to run the gamut of the entire political spectrum. In fact, the NFL was the only sports circuit listed among the top-15 most polarizing brands.
This information comes on the heels of prior Morning Consult polls the past few weeks since President Donald Trump first suggested firing NFL players who knelt or raised fists during the anthem.
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Morning Consult — which does daily polling of about 5,000 people nationwide on a variety of topics – says Democrats and Republicans shared similar NFL views pre-controversy, with about 60 percent liking the league and 20 percent viewing it unfavorably. Today, according to recent polling, Trump voters are more likely to view the league unfavorably, while Hillary Clinton voters continue to see it roughly the same way.
Several NFL players on various teams again knelt before anthems were played Sunday.
Robert Passikoff, president and founder of New York-based Brand Keys, which does corporate consulting on maintaining and boosting brand value, says the major sports leagues “tend to have very high expectations surrounding them regarding patriotism.
“To a certain degree, that seems to make just intuitive sense,’’ he said. “But the leagues always show up very high when we look at what the most patriotic brands are.’’
Passikoff’s company has spent three decades running annual “fan loyalty” surveys nationwide on the four major sports leagues. One of the main criteria in those surveys is “fan engagement’’ — of which patriotism is a “fairly significant contributor’’ in terms of the ritual and tradition of following a team’s games and buying tickets and merchandise.
“If you had said to me: ‘Did I think that this was going to affect engagement on a negative basis?’ I would tell you, ‘Yes.’ It’s like, if you snatch one leg out from a table, it only takes so long before it tips over.’’
In the wake of continued controversy, Passikoff’s company last week conducted its own survey of roughly 1,200 avid NFL fans in nine major markets nationwide to gauge the impact of anthem protests.
The results, to be released to the media Tuesday, showed about 50 percent felt the NFL should make players stand, about 21 percent said it’s OK and the remaining 29 percent didn’t care. Across political lines, just under 70 percent of Republicans felt that way, 30 percent of Democrats did and so did nearly half of independent party supporters.
“People are tired of being lectured to and apparently feel there’s an appropriate time and place,’’ he said.
One problem the NFL faces is the controversy keeps growing. Much has been fueled by Trump continuing to speak out against the league on a weekly basis, expressing disdain for players who protest.
“This keeps coming back because the president keeps speaking and the leagues don’t seem to have a consistent policy on it,’’ Passikoff said.
And that could very well be why Jones and Goodell clamped down last week after initially seeming sympathetic.
Jones had joined his players in linking arms and kneeling two days after the Trump controversy first arose. That same weekend, Goodell called Trump’s comments “divisive’’ and said they “demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players … ’’
But last week, Jones warned any Cowboys player that “disrespects the flag’’ won’t take the field. And Goodell issued a memo to all 32 teams laying out the league’s stance on social-justice policy — and pointing out that its rules allow for discipline in the form of fines, suspensions and loss of draft picks for failure to comply.
It said: “The current dispute over the National Anthem is threatening to erode the unifying power of our game, and is now dividing us, and our players, from many fans across the country.’’
In other words, it risks hitting the league in its collective wallet if it alienates half the country. While the immediate financial impact might not be obvious, the long-term risks could become very real if the thought of the NFL as an unpatriotic league becomes ingrained.
One thing Morning Consult added was that the life span of outrage toward a brand can decrease as controversy lessens. As an example, it said the viral video from April of a passenger being dragged off a United Airlines flight led to overwhelmingly negative views toward that brand — with many saying they’d pay extra to fly with a different airline.
Six months later, many now view United as highly as before the controversy.
And the NFL, which pays its own marketing staffers and consultants to generate much the same data, is no doubt trying to find the quickest way to get fans to forget all about the past month.