Salt & Pepper # 15 - Sports Branding Challenges

NOTE: Salt & Pepper is intented to foster intelligent dialogue between professionals. This is not a dagger throwing contest. Be honest and authentic, but please also be kind and keep it classy.


For this month’s version of Salt & Pepper, we wanted to take on something a little different but is easily relatable to a large demographic: What marketing and branding challenges do American sports leagues face. Today, Kirby “Salt” Hasseman and Bill “Pepper” Petrie will share their take on which sports league faces the biggest hurdles over the next decade as they try to retain the sports hearts of the American people. 

Kirby “Salt” Hasseman
It is SO clear to me that the sports league that has the biggest branding issue over the next 10 years is Major League Baseball.  Want to know how I know?  Because I had to consider whether or not to take Soccer as a side in this argument!  Now before you soccer enthusiasts get all fired up, I simply mean that soccer is now a major sport.  It has been on the rise!  Major League Baseball, which used to be the clear number one, is falling fast.  Here is why I think that trend continues.

1. Too Slow For TV –  In an age where nearly everything is faster and faster, MLB is a very slow game.  Purists will tell you that is part of the beauty of the game.  But the game doesn’t grow with purists.  The action is way too spaced out.  Like it or not, you need a game that is consumable on TV.

2. Slow to Evolve –  Which leads nicely into the fact that MLB refuses to change.  While other leagues (see the NBA and NFL) are constantly tweaking and enhancing and changing, baseball never seems to want to change.  If you love baseball, that’s great.  But if you never evolve, you die.

3. Young Talent and Audience –  For any sport to have long term success, they need a feeder group of talent playing the game.  That not only leads to professional talent playing the game, but it also leads to an audience.  While some would argue this is an issue for the NFL because of safety (though statistics would refute that) it’s an issue to MLB because of passion.  Young people simply don’t CARE about baseball.

And let’s face it, nothing kills any business faster than apathy.  The game is the brand with Major League Baseball…and the brand is in trouble.

Bill “Pepper” Petrie
History is littered with empires that were once thought to last forever: Egyptian, Roman, Byzantine, Mongol, and British. Despite all their economic advantages, each one ended for one reason or another. I fear it’s time to add the National Football League (NFL) to that list. Yes, I realize that American football is a juggernaut of epic proportions as evidenced by a nation held captive last week to watch the reading of names of college players were that were drafted by teams. Make no mistake, however, the NFL is facing a branding problem so big it will threaten the viability of the league in the next decade. Here are the three main issues the NFL is facing and all can either be mitigated or eliminated with targeted branding initiatives:

1. Player Safety – Since its inception, American football has always been a violent sport. However, much like the tobacco companies who tried to hide the impact of smoking cigarettes from the government and general public, the NFL has always downplayed the role concussions play in future health problems. Aside from the loss of credibility, the real issue is whether future generations will feel comfortable sacrificing future health for the game. In the past few years several high profile players have retried early citing concerns of head injury. This alone may be the harbinger of doom for the NFL.

2. Questionable Leadership – The commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, rose to power under a platform of discipline for players who failed to “protect the shield.” Over the past few years, his office has bungled several high profile player discipline cases due to the fact that he is both judge and jury. Goodell is stubborn and has far too much power – that much is fact. However, as long as he is making money for his bosses – the 32 franchise owners – he will stay and trust in the league will continue to erode.

3. Oversaturation – Other than the actual game itself, one of the true differentiators of the NFL was scarcity. Just 10 years ago, games were played weekly on Sunday, with only a single Monday night game. Now games are played every Thursday night, Sunday, Sunday night, and Monday night during the season. As much as I love football, it’s too much and feels quite gluttonous by the end of each campaign. As mentioned above with the draft, football now has an 11-month news cycle: rookie camp, training camp, preseason, regular season, playoffs, Super Bowl, scouting combine, free agency, and the draft. Like good barbecue, I can only eat so much before I’m full and the more that is thrown at me during the “off season,” the less hungry I am when the games actually begin.

The NFL will surely survive for longer than 10 years. However, I do believe interest will begin to wane for the reasons stated above. When you really look at it, to a certain degree all the above can be solved with branding and marketing: promoting education to reduce the amount of head injuries (this is being done), hiring a commissioner that has as much interest in player safety as he/she does in making money for the owners, and scaling back the sheer amount of football served to the audience.