How to Kill a Brand

31 Jan , 2018  

We see it all the time. Once-strong brands die because they don’t adapt to rapid changes. They just keep on keeping on until they wither away. Some well-known examples: Pan Am, Tower Records, Blockbuster, Circuit City, Woolworth’s, Borders Books.

Let’s take just one example that could be in the first stages of a death spiral: The NFL. The NFL is much more than a league, a sport, a game. Not only does it generate revenue independent of any of its teams, it is embedded in American culture.

The NFL logo is found everywhere. And NFL merchandise is a world-wide phenomenon, independent of and coexisting with the individual teams or brands. It’s the NFL, not the teams, that has allowed the league to dominate the airwaves.

The History of the NFL

Most fans don’t know about the origins of the NFL brand. The NFL started as a bush league in the late 19 teens with part time players. The league was being outpaced and outdone by college football and two or three major sports in America, the first and foremost being Baseball.

The owners probably never thought about it much in this way, but they were competing with America’s Pastime, not just with college football! So the league struggled…

Then television crashed into American consciousness – almost overnight – in the early 1950s. Back then, TV had such a big impact on the culture that the phrase “the difference is television” became common parlance. Television, this new media, brought the NFL out of the shadows. Quietly, the NFL quietly began to sneak up on Major League Baseball.

The MLB logo and branding did not exist then. Baseball moguls did not see a need for such silliness. They were the teams, the brands, not Baseball, but when major league baseball branded itself as MLB, the words received capital letters and it began to generate revenue, negotiate contracts and even got its own TV channel.

In addition to MLB there was another, more direct challenger to the NFL – the American Football League appeared suddenly out of nowhere in 1960. Lamar Hunt, the wealthy oil baron had started the league, and it almost flopped. He could not make his team work in Dallas, his home town, so he moved his team to Kansas City and the league began to flourish.

The upstart brand began to succeed despite all the naysayers. Soon it competed for TV contracts and began to hold its own end of year Championship Game to compete with the NFL Championship Game.

The AFL was helping to feed the nearly insatiable need for football. But it wasn’t the NFL, so it remained the underdog – until Joe Namath came along. His contribution to this saga is underappreciated today. The AFL picked up and began to succeed beyond the expectations of the NFL owners. Then, the turning point came.

The owners of both leagues saw an opportunity and before you know it, the two leagues merged, eventually creating a massive money machine heretofore unknown in the world of sports. The NFL gave the AFL status by playing a season-ending Championship game with the AFL champion. The 1966 and 1967 games were poorly attended, but by the third year, the 1968 game was baptized as The Super Bowl. Today the Super Bowl captures the attention of half or more of Americans each year. There are tens of thousands of unofficial line extensions, with people partying around the nation and the world over.

The advertising revenue is impossible to count because of the incredible media buildup to The Game. Estimates put the revenue of Super Bowl L in 2016 at over $620 million.

Breaking the Brand Promise of the NFL

We haven’t conducted the necessary Right Brain Research for the NFL to uncover the full depth of the emotional basis for its appeal, so we’ll draw on our general knowledge of the category.

What is the primary emotional motivation of leisure time activities and pursuits?

The Need for ESCAPE.

Escape transports people away to a different world, where good and evil battle, and cares and worries disappear for a few hours. Without leaving the comfort of their chairs, viewers are transported quickly into another world, just by turning on the TV.

In the football world, macho, hard-headed competition is the rule. It’s like experiencing the strategy and glory of a battle, without the risk and horror of pain and death.

But at the beginning of the 2016 season, the NFL brand was shaken to its core. Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers, and fellow player Eric Reid knelt during the national anthem, after discussing appropriate ways to show their distress at police brutality against African Americans.

And with this one act of protest, everything changed. His coach and the team owner, the brand stewards in this case, had no idea how to respond. More players on more teams began to participate. The kneeling caused a rift between the NFL and a segment of the fans who interpreted the gesture as disrespectful to the American flag, and marked the end of Colin Kaepernick’s career in the NFL.

In an article in the New York Times, Eric Reid said, “It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel. We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite. It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest.”

Why did the owners, the stewards of the brand in this case, allow and then continue to allow the kneeling protests during the national anthem, while failing to make peace with the protesting players? It seems like the league could not decide what would hurt the brand worse – allowing the protests, or putting a stop to it.

The situation, never corrected or forbidden, spun out of control. Players on other teams picked up on it, and the owners seemed to be waiting it out instead of dealing with it, which caused more conflict among the parties involved. We will never know how many games were lost because of dissension among team members.

Attendance, ratings and merchandise sales dropped in the 2017 season. The ratings slippage ranges from 10% to 30% depending on the market what is being measured. The ratings for the first games of the playoff were down 17%! It is very difficult to measure the exact extent of the slide in revenue, and all the factors contributing to the slump. Ad revenue does not drop immediately as in other arenas, because the contracts are so so complex, but the networks are watching the ratings like hawks. The media will have to keep paying through the nose for this collapsing brand until the current contract expires, and when the negotiations start the owners will be in deep trouble.

Since Super Bowl 1, the NFL has been growing and developing and morphing into America’s number one sport. We had not seen anything like it. But now it is in real muddle.


Some lifelong fans have stopped watching or have become far less connected.


The answer is clear once you understand why the fans watch in the first place. They watch to escape the anxieties and pressures and ugliness of the everyday work-a-day world. When one man kneeled down on the field during the National Anthem, he broke an unwritten rule to keep politics out of sports.

Once again, the brand managers are the ones who are most often responsible for the decline of a brand. Will they succeed in killing their own brand?

The Commissioner seems helpless and no one owner has really stepped up to protect his multi-billion-dollar team. In fact, the feeble and often insulting attempts by some team owners, who seem out of touch with their own players AND fans, only served to aggravate the situation.

Next time we will take a look at what the brand managers (the owners) have tried to do to staunch the demonstrations, and why these efforts have utterly failed to accomplish their objectives.

, ,

4 Responses

  1. Bryan says:

    Well written and stated. This is the reason I quit watching the NFL this year.

  2. Kelly O'Keefe says:

    I could not disagree more. The NFL has always been involved with politics. The signing of the national anthem is a reflection of that. The NFL is wise to understand that the majority of Americans support the free and respectful expression of the athletes.

  3. Tim Schumacher says:

    You left out over proliferation of teams and consequent saturation of the viewer market. Added to this is the Sunday night, Monday night and Thursday night extension of scheduling games. Pro football was a kind of sacrosanct act of Sunday worship and now it has no unique time. Like pro baseball and basketball, it is difficult to put fannies in the stadium and living room seats with no sense of special occasion.

  4. Too Much Lawyer… Too Little Leader
    We are in furious agreement that the NFL is losing its mojo due to a lack of leadership, starting at the top of the organization.
    Even prior to the Kaepernick experience, the league endured a series of bad behavior episodes in which players were accused of various forms of domestic abuse. Not unlike “Take-A-Knee”, it was largely ignored until conclusive video evidence started turning up, at which point the horse was out of the barn and 10 miles down the road.
    In each case, the league was cluelessly insensitive to both its leadership obligations and its fans, who are paying for all of this in order to escape reality for a few hours each week. And many of those fans, (including this one), are voting with their feet.
    While not suggesting that these are easy issues, we’re not trying to solve cancer here, either. The answer is NOT to do nothing. Nor is it to stand back while the nation’s designated loudmouth shouts, “Fire the SOBs” on world-wide TV at the top of his lungs.
    The only observed real-time leadership was by Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach, Mike Tomlin who, after polling his players, wisely removed the team to the locker room pending the start of the game.
    Had the NFL opted to exercise a little more leadership, they might have, in the Kaepernick case, met with players after the very first episode to understand their issue/ objectives and to point out that biting the hands of fans who pay for this little show probably isn’t the best course of action. Then, with the power of its wallet, TV time, and marketing prowess, the league might have proposed joining forces with the players in an effort that everyone could be proud of. Game over.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *