With the National Football League appearing to be on the cusp of a new collective bargaining agreement between its ownership and its principle labor force (football players), the football fans who pay the bills are preparing to take a deep a breathe any day now. Wait a minute, isn't that backwards? Shouldn't the NFL be begging the fans to come back after the implied threat to cancel the season? Despite taking them for an unwanted ride, I don't think the football fans ever left.
The National Football League risked losing the most by not not playing football in 2011. If that happened, millions of Americans would have to find another use for their 9 billion discretionary dollars- certainly a lot of money to lose. Meanwhile, the fans would trade potential boredom on Sunday's for more time and money. On the surface, it's an easy decision. However, humans are complex beings, especially when it comes to how they spend their dollar. For the most part, the fans have stuck to the league that chose to jeopardize a near certain 9 billion dollar gift for the hope of getting a little more out of the pot. That's one hell of a branding problem to have; customers so entrenched in the brand that if they willingly close their doors their customers will keep knocking anyway.
There should be a better way of doing business without dragging the customers and employees through the trenches- and some interesting theories have been proposed to that belief. But perhaps the NFL is willing to risk potential destruction to the brand because they too realize that it's nearly indestructible. The Shield is barely touched by multiple player arrests and conduct issues every year. It largely escapes the public scrutiny that athletes cheat the game by taking preforming enhancing drugs- despite playing a game where bodily harm is the norm and short recovery times are necessary for these athletes to stay on the field in order to make a living. Fans will even overlook self-made billionaires asking for and taking unreasonable amounts of public money from overburdened tax bases (or threatening to move the team) for their own private gain. And the Shield barely gets nicked when its labor force and retirees continually suffer from highly debilitating and paralyzing injuries sustained at work and consequently have a typical life span far shorter than what's considered normal among the general population today. That's because unlike the Shield they serve and protect, the bodies of its labor force, while built to be indestructible, always prove otherwise. It seems silly to think that we not only tolerate this, we justify it; simply for a game that serves to entertainment us.
The reason it's justified is beyond great branding. The NFL (and other sports) have learned to transform a game played into a culture. Instead of entertainment a professional team is as much a civil institution as it's a business. Through traditions and shared experiences customers develop deep and lastly emotional connections to the brand. Which is why us fans are happy to put up with all the crap that we do.
This post also appeared on Talent Zoo Media's Beneath The Brand blog.