Is the NFL Losing 45% of Its Fan Base?
If NFL stood for "not for long" instead of "National Football League," the debate would center on how much more time it would take for its reputation to recover from a perceived cover-up of a crime—Ray Rice punching and knocking out his then-fiancé, now-wife, Janay Palmer, in February in an Atlantic City casino elevator. Or "NFL" could continue to stand for what comes up in Twitter searches on Wednesday for the trending topic of #RayRice: "Related Searches: #nfl, #domesticviolence"
The Ray Rice situation serves as a marketing lesson for leaders of brands who think customers will stay, no matter what, because they love/want/need/are addicted to their products. As the tobacco industry can tell the NFL, there's always a turning point. And decisions organizations make during the turning point can make all the difference. (See below for details of the consequences for the tobacco industry's cover-up.)
If brands contemplate a cover-up, one crisis communications thought leader says to think again. "The cover up can be worse than the crime," says Judy A. Smith, founder and president of Smith & Company.
Even as the Baltimore Ravens let Rice go and the NFL suspends him indefinitely, is it enough for the 45 percent of NFL fans who are women? Or will the problem blow up and become bigger than Rice?
" 'Suspended indefinitely' 'Not ruling out Rice playing in NFL ever again' Why? Why should anybody ever get away with assaulting anyone? @NFL," tweets @TheDesertDoll on Tuesday. "If he ever plays another game in the NFL, I'll never buy another licensed NFL product again. I refuse. I don't condone domestic violence."
@NFL doesn't respond to her, but tweets on Wednesday, "Commissioner Goodell sends letter to owners detailing Ray Rice investigation: http://on.nfl.com/1uIZ8h2"
The letter from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says the NFL didn't ask the casino directly for the video, but requested it from many law enforcement agencies.
"As always, we will continuously examine our procedures," Goodell writes (Opens as a PDF). "I believe that we took a significant step forward with the enhanced policies on domestic violence and sexual assault that were announced last month. I also know that we will be judged on our actions going forward. I am confident that those actions will demonstrate our commitment to address this issue seriously and effectively, and will reflect well on the NFL, all member clubs, and everyone who is a part of our league."
A few hours earlier, a dozen members of Congress sent Goodell a letter requesting "the highest level of transparency." A smattering of other headlines include:
- "Will Female Fans, Sponsors Forgive the NFL?"
- "What Ray Rice Should Mean for NFL's Female Fan Base"
- "The Culture Of Football—Hit Hit Hit! #whyIleft"
- "NOW Wants Roger Goodell Out"
- "Keith Olbermann Calls on NFL Commissioner to Resign Over Ray Rice Incident"
- "TMZ's Harvey Levin: We Have Proof NFL 'Turned a Blind Eye' to Ray Rice Video"
This is the time when the NFL determines its course—transparency or cover-up. Goodell's letter may show an attempt at transparency. Time will tell.
For the tobacco industry, the turning point came in 1950 when research revealed smoking causes health problems. The industry initiated a cover-up by creating false, pro-tobacco studies. In 1964, when the Surgeon General's findings were the same as the original research, about 42.4 percent of adult Americans stayed with the product. In 1998, about 25 percent of Americans smoked and tobacco companies agreed pay $10 billion annually, indefinitely, for the damage caused by the cover-up. From 2009 to 2012, the percentage of U.S. adults who smoke held at 18.
Using a different organization as a model, Michelle deHaaff provides advice for marketers so they can prevent horrible incidents from happening. In "Comcast's Customer Experience Debacle: 3 Ways to Prevent Frontline Disasters" on CustomerThink.com, she writes:
1. Hire Employees Who Really Like People. A positive attitude is key, she writes.
2. Empower the Frontline Through Transparency. "Having the data and treating the frontline like owners empowers them to act like owners," deHaaff says.
3. Rigorously Track and Measure Customer Experience. "This doesn't mean just once a month, once a quarter, or once a year (through research)—it means every day, every experience, across every channel," she writes. "Build this into the business and make it simple."
What's the future for the NFL's relationship with female fans?
Please respond in the comments section below.