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Et Tu, Eric Cartman? NFL Gets the 'South Park' Treatment

Et Tu, Eric Cartman? NFL Gets the 'South Park' Treatment

During an offseason originally dominated with concussion-related litigation, it’s ironic that people now wonder if Roger Goodell’s head should be examined.

The 32 franchise owners pay Goodell to maximize revenue, increase football’s popularity, and safeguard the NFL’s profit-model for generations to come. And he’s paid quite well: With his salary and bonuses, Goodell makes upwards of $44.2 million annually.

But after 24-months of nonstop debacles du jour–concussion lawsuits, replacement refs, the bullying scandal, the arrest of the Colts owner, the Redskins’ name controversy, TMZ revealing the Ray Rice video, Adrian Peterson’s child-abuse indictment, Chris Kluwe’s lawsuit against the Vikings–the mainstream media now tells us that the mighty NFL shield shows signs of irrevocable decay. Pro football is reeling! In an ominous article last week, Variety warned that “perhaps a sport like soccer will gain at the NFL’s expense.” 

A once-lionized league (and, thanks to the gritty hyperbole of NFL Films, even mythologized) now suffers the fate of Jersey Shore, Kanye West, Tom Cruise, and Mel Gibson: Pop-culture luminaries who’ve become objects of derision for the late-night comics…and even those rowdy kids from South Park.

Last night, the Comedy Central animated series depicted Roger Goodell as a robot delivering programmed answers, featured the obligatory CCTV imagery of a lady obliviously walking into an elevator containing a football player, and even ridiculed Cowboys owner Jerry Jones for possessing too much space between his eyeballs.

“It’s offensive to us,” Redskins owner Daniel Snyder tells Eric Cartman after trademark problems for the franchise enable him to start a business also called the Washington Redskins (“There’s already brand name awareness, and it’s instantly recognizable.”). Cartman informs Snyder of his “deep appreciation” for “your team” and “your people.” The relationship between the elementary-school student and the owner serves as a not-so-subtle metaphor for the relationship between Snyder’s football team and its Native American critics.

The NFL playing as a cartoon punching bag in primetime might suggest to some how far the mighty have fallen.

Tipping points do exist. Brands do rise and fall. Forty-odd years ago, Johnny Carson’s barbs served as our litmus test for social standing. Today, the baton belongs to Eric Cartman (and we must respect his authority!).

Although the NFL clearly has reasons for concern, there’s no reason for alarm. Not yet. Despite the media’s hysterical bellyaching, the NFL’s demise has been absurdly overstated. In fact, the NFL is more solvent than most of the media outlets predicting its extinction.

Here are the three biggest PR myths about the recent NFL scandals:

Myth #1: The only way consumers can make a difference is by not watching NFL games.  As long as you’re still viewing the NFL’s on-field product, you are part of the problem! 

This claim is asserted so often, it’s almost an article of faith: If die-hard fans keep watching their favorite teams play on Sunday, they “vote with their eyeballs” and the NFL laughs all the way to the bank (This is usually prefaced as a call-to-action by anti-football social activists, encouraging a viewer boycott). 

Don’t believe it. This demonstrates an appalling lack of marketing insight, because it assumes that the NFL’s sponsors simply pay to reach the greatest number of eyeballs. 

They don’t.

What the NFL sponsors pay a premium for is product association.

Anheuser-Busch could reach an identical number of eyeballs – and at a fraction of the cost – by purchasing banner ads on the top-500 adult websites (And candidly, since Busch focuses its marketing on male, 21+ consumers, adult websites would probably be more targeted than NFL telecasts.).

But eyeballs are not the only metric that marketers value. Anheuser-Busch, Papa John’s, Subway, McDonald’s, Gatorade, and all the other NFL sponsors pay top-dollar because they want their “brand” to be associated with the most popular and most revered sport in America. They want passionate, dedicated NFL fans to become as “brand-loyal” to their products as they are to their favorite team. 

If you want to punish the NFL, you don’t need to stop watching. All you have to do is perceive the NFL more negatively, so the sponsorship benefits of product association are diminished. That’s the single greatest monetary danger that the league faces.

Myth #2: There’s an epidemic of domestic violence in America and the NFL is overrun with violent criminals.  Since kids emulate their sports heroes, the NFL is responsible for popularizing spousal abuse!  

From 1994 to 2012, domestic violence in the United States has actually dropped by 63 percent, according to the Justice Department. So if NFL athletes are responsible for glamorizing bad behavior, then who deserves credit for this statistical nosedive? Furthermore, since 2000, NFL players have been arrested at an 87 percent lower rate than the national average for the male, 25- to 29-aged demographic. NFL players are also arrested less frequently for DUI, nondomestic assault, domestic assault, drug arrests, fraud, disorderly conduct and sex offenses.

No matter its frequency, domestic violence is always bad. But it’s simply not true to say that the NFL overflows with criminals.

(Question: Has anyone ever researched the crime rate of American journalists? The American Spectator has…and the results aren’t pretty.)

Myth #3: This has been the worst few weeks in football history! 

Talk about a myopic memory: In 1905, 18 players at all levels of the game died directly and indirectly from football. Many more kids were seriously injured. Then-President Theodore Roosevelt called a White House summit on football to clean up the game. 

But you needn’t go all the way back to 1905. The NFL has survived season-halting strikes, league-wide shutdowns, scab players, gambling scandals, franchise owners indicted, antitrust lawsuits from rival leagues, and more. The NFL has overcome half-empty stadiums, rampant steroids, suspicions of organized crime, allegations of owners’ collusion, Nipplegate, Bountygate, Spygate, and star players arrested for everything from double-homicide to dog-fighting.

Think about it: We’re approaching Week Four of the 2014 NFL season, and not a single game has been blacked-out. Fans still pack stadiums. The NFL Network is now a cable TV fixture and the league has billion-dollar broadcast deals with ESPN, NBC, DirecTV, FOX, and CBS. Viewership is still high. If the NFL is a league in crisis, then what does that say about the NBA, MLB, NASCAR, PGA, and MLS – all of whom lag far behind pro football in both popularity and promotional platforms?  

The NFL certainly has its problems. It also has an easy solution to its problems. Since today’s media values symbolism over substance, all the league needs to do is jettison Goodell for a strong, independent woman (Condi Rice?) who will serve as its new public face. After three or four interviews, there would be a perceptual shift overnight.

In 1985, the Harris Poll asked Americans to name their favorite sport; the NFL topped second-place MLB by 24 percent to 23 percent. The NFL has led all other sports in the 30 years since, and in 2014 the NFL topped second-place MLB by 35 percent to 14 percent. (Incidentally, the third-place sport wasn’t the NBA, NASCAR, or MLS but…college football.) The United States loves football, not futbol.

Perhaps the Roger Goodell “brand” has been tainted. But the NFL itself is remarkably well-situated for long-term dominance of the American sporting landscape. It’s not a league in decline. It’s a league in transition. It evolves from a brutal, testosterone-driven sport that took pride in its violence to a male/female, family-friendly, pop-culture institution. The league that once celebrated the manic mayhem of Butkus, Bednarik, and LT now appears as a multimedia entertainment company undergoing a deliberately-calculated demographical shift. Like it or not, this ain’t your father’s NFL – it now belongs to Mom, Grandma, and your little sister, too.

And that’s no myth.

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