Some day, it will be taught on business studies courses: the multi-billion dollar major league and the crisis of confidence.
The National Football League (NFL) is the most lucrative sporting competition in the world. Its marquee game is watched live on television by around one in three Americans. Its teams are globally popular brands with enough local clout to get state and city governments running with nine figures’ worth of taxpayer money for their every infrastructural whim. Its commissioner has the security of a long-term contract signed less than a year ago. For decades, it has been the dominant force in American sport and among the most envied entertainment properties around.
And yet, it is stumbling into a new season reeking of disaster. Relatively modest dips in linear viewing figures, completely in line with industry trends, are framed as catastrophic fan desertion. Its owners are being dragged into a dishonest culture war by a historically unpopular US president in need of a public distraction – and they are losing.
All the while, a genuine existential threat goes ignored. Recurring incidences of CTE and similar brain injuries have destroyed the lives of former NFL players and turned a generation of parents off sending their kids to play gridiron. The league’s inadequate response – failing to properly compensate those players and fudging rule changes for fear of a red-blooded supporter backlash – has only deepened the impression that it has something to hide.
Then there is Colin Kaepernick. Two years after the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback took a knee during a pre-game rendition of the American national anthem in protest at police brutality and racial inequality, he continues to poke at a self-inflicted wound in the league’s side. In late August, as players went on following his example in pre-season fixtures, his winnable-looking case against blackballing team owners for collusion in restraint of trade was cleared for court.
Ex-49ers QB Colin Kaepernick's fronting of Nike's latest campaign has continued to divide the sport and the nation
And more embarrassingly, as the regular season kicked off at the weekend, NFL sponsor Nike braved stock-market uncertainty and a sock-shredding, trainer-burning backlash to unveil Kaepernick as a brand ambassador – one it has offered handsome financial support to all along. The 30-year-old is the face of a huge campaign to mark the 30th anniversary of its iconic slogan, ‘Just Do It’.
What the NFL would give for such decisiveness right now.
The new season brings the release of Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times. Written by the canny political journalist Mark Leibovich, the book reportedly depicts the league’s ownership and executive class as insecure, out of touch and, in the strictly non-political sense, self-defeatingly conservative. In conversation last week with US sports website The Ringer, Leibovich described the league’s leadership strategy under Roger Goodell as “playing not to lose and then losing”.
What it all adds up to, for an organisation which looks economically impregnable, is a sense of vulnerability. Donald Trump is terrible at most things. He was a terrible businessman; he’s a terrible politician well on course to be an all-time hall of shame godawful president; he appears to be a pretty terrible person in most respects. But one of his few gifts, if it can be described as such, is a school bully’s instinct for weakness and self-doubt.
The NFL needs to rediscover its faith in its product and its popularity, and to address its long-term challenges honestly, with cool-headed solutions
Initially, it looked as though he might have miscalculated when he took on the NFL but the league-wide united front that broke out at the start of last season quickly collapsed – evidently, that front had only been put up in the hopes that the issue would quietly go away. In its place have come a series of measures clearly designed to that end but which already look unfit for purpose, and might be unenforceable.
It is difficult to imagine the same kind of wobbles afflicting, say, the National Basketball Association (NBA). In that environment, a succession of players and coaches have coolly swatted away the playground taunts of the commander-in-chief – not because they are any more articulate or self-assured than their counterparts in pro football but because they know they have the backing of league leadership to speak their minds.
From the moment he intervened so dramatically to punish and banish the then LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling for racist comments back in 2014, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has projected an authority based on mutual respect. He has set the culture from the top, and is taken seriously as the head of a forward-thinking league. When he or his colleagues propose some innovation or branding initiative it is framed not by them but by industry observers as a glimpse at the future of all sport.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has shown the NFL how to run a progressive American sports league
That was the NFL once, back when its incursions into foreign cities and broadcast deals with tech giants were met with barely guarded awe. There is no reason it cannot be seen in the same way again but it has much to do to shore up and modernise its brand. Activision Blizzard executive Tim Ellis will sweep in later this month as the new chief marketing officer, the long-term replacement for Dawn Hudson, who announced her departure back in March. It will be hoped that he can bring with him the knack of maintaining communities in the digital age that his former employer, a market leader in the esports space, has demonstrated in spades.
A woman with perhaps an even more complicated task ahead is Jocelyn Moore, who was appointed back at the end of June as the NFL’s executive vice president of communications and public affairs. For the league, deciding what it wants to be in the decade ahead will be one thing. Understanding how to bring the media and, by extension, its audience with it will be quite another. Moore’s previous role was as the NFL senior vice president of public policy and government affairs; she will have seen from close range the current trend for short-circuiting the media narrative.
What the NFL needs is to stop being jolted by that phenomenon. It needs to rediscover its faith in its product and its popularity, and to address its long-term challenges honestly, with cool-headed solutions. Few organisations in sport have the kind of financial advantage with which to take that process on.
The multi-billion dollar major league that got its priorities straight, got its swagger back and stayed ahead. They might teach that one in business schools, too.