If you are a crisis communications enthusiast, the NFL has been a gift that keeps on giving in the past year, with a steady drumbeat of scandals providing ample fodder for commentary. 2014 was not a kind year for the NFL…or should I say, the NFL did its best to skewer itself in 2014? From incidents involving former fan favorites Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson toCommissioner Goodell’s mishandling of each situation, the hits just kept on coming for the league. In some cases, the bad behavior turned fans off, others like #deflategate became a rallying cry and unifier about the team you love to hate.
With each new headline, you could practically hear loyal fans groaning and public opinion plummeting. As we get ready for the Big Game, and the plethora of marketing stunts that accompany it (Puppy Bowl, anyone?), let’s take a break from the hate, and look at how NFL owners and players have been working to rebuild trust, one player at a time (with perhaps a twinge of hope that some of this would “go viral” – which has replaced “be on Oprah” as the single common wish of any client at any agency today).
Exhibit A: Carolina Panthers owner, Jerry Richardson, sent a handwritten note to a young boy in Kansas inviting him to be a Panthers fan. The boy sent letters to all 32 teams explaining that everyone in his family loved football, but he was the only one without loyalty to a specific team, and asked which team should be “his team.” Richardson was the only one who answered, and he promised the boy that the team would make him proud to be a fan by their classy behavior. Talk about cultivating the next generation of brand enthusiasts!
Exhibit B: JJ Watt, received a signed jersey from an 7-year-old fan, along with a handwritten note outlining the ways the two were similar – everything from wearing the No. 99 to being labeled the “most feared rusher” in their leagues. He wrote back with this advice: “to stay confident, and keep working hard.” That note, and a signed pair of cleats went a long way.
These two stories feel like the sports icons of a different generation – who took their responsibility to the fans, and to binge a role model seriously. Two heartwarming stories won’t rehabilitate the reputation of the league. But the commitment to doing the right things, as individuals, as a team and as a league, will be key to getting the NFL back on track. Today, the teams and the league are being judged by the worst behavior of an individual – it will take a lot of examples of good behavior to drown out that drumbeat. But the little things matter. Perhaps the NFL can win back the affection of the American public, one fan at a time.