Last week the NFL announced that the highest-paid player in their league was suspended 11 games for allegedly sexually assaulting 24 different female massage therapists. Eleven games. After hiring outside counsel to initially tackle the always thorny issue of self-policing, the NFL appealed the decision to, basically, themselves. This comes on the heels of another investigation into an owner allegedly asking a head coach to fix games. Even while the NFL is in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, excitement builds for a new season.
So they hide behind their brand. Protect the shield, as they say.
Major League Baseball has a long and varied track record of scandals, including the PED scandal of the early 2000’s from which the game took years to recover. In that scandal, MLB dragged their feet as players bulked up and sent record amounts of home runs into the seats. The game made a ton of money on the scandal, then backtracked as public scrutiny grew.
The NHL has had its own scandals, most recently divulging a 10-year old sexual molestation case that resulted in the resignation of one of the league’s all-time great coaches. Forced to deal with their brand after the story broke, they have tried to place the scandal behind them.
And as we write this, the Canadian World Junior Hockey Men’s team (part of Hockey Canada, the governing body) recently divulged that they paid out $3.5 million to a woman who accused 8 players of sexual molestation in an Ontario hotel room in 2018. They also paid another $7.6 million to settle 9 other assualt suits dating back to 1989. This has resulted in historic low attendance at the current World Junior Championships, one of the major sporting events in Canada.
So what does all of this have to do with branding?
Sports leagues are in a constant battle with themselves, their basic need in generating more revenue, and the public perception of their sport. What’s good for business isn’t necessarily what’s good for their brand, and they know it. To admit mistakes (not to mention criminal behavior) is very bad for the bottom line, but owning these mistakes would actually be better for their brands in the long run. Imagine if the NFL commissioner came out and said words to the effect of “Hey, we really messed up here and will do everything to right the ship.” Or if the NHL had admitted the molestation case when it happened? Or if MLB punished those who cheated, and didn’t elect one of them to the Hall of Fame? (David Ortiz, one of the original players on a short list of PED users back in 2003, was elected to the Hall last year.)
Being honest with your customers is one of the basic tenets of good branding. How you behave, what your values are, what you do in a crisis. Most businesses would suffer drastically if these scandals occured and the public found out. Boycotts would ensue, fairly, and their reputations would be detroyed, all the good equity that was built up, destroyed. The billion-dollar sports leagues can hide behind their brands, but not for long. Eventually, their behavior will catch up to them. Just ask Hockey Canada how they feel right now.