At What Price Fame? Seeing Both Sides of A Sticky PR Challenge

SLRG President Jon Last’s February 2013 Media Post column explores the marketing implications of a contradiction of sorts among football fans, revealed in new SLRG research—Fans are concerned about player safety, yet a large number would risk the long-term impact of concussions for a chance at NFL stardom.

Borrowing from the late, great sport columnists Red Smith and Dick Young, I begin this month’s posting with four related “news items”:

  1. NFL Partners with GE for $50 million concussion research initiative
  2. New Sports and Leisure Research Group study shows 40% of male NFL fans and more than half of those age 35 and under would accept an “offer” of a lucrative, All Pro NFL career in return for the onset of dementia at age 65
  3. In the same SLRG study, 83% of the same audience agrees with the statement, “The issue of concussions in football is among the most serious problems that must be dealt with.”
  4. President Obama questions whether he’d allow his “son” to play football

For those of us involved in marketing football, the growing focus on player safety and the impact of concussions is ubiquitous. The NFL should be applauded for not hiding from the issue and putting its money behind the GE initiative. But as “news items” two and three above, suggest, research that my firm just recently conducted with over 1,400 football fans raises an interesting hypocrisy. Yes, we understand the dangers present in competing in sports at its highest levels. But, simultaneously, a sizable number of us would be willing to pay a significant price for a significant return.

To proactively address those methodologically skeptical, let me quote the actual survey question from our study, referenced in item #2:

Assume for a moment, that a genie offers you the following proposition: 

You will be given the opportunity to live or re-live your life with the ability to become an 

All-Pro NFL player, recognized as one of the best at your position in the league and compensated accordingly. You will enjoy a lucrative 10-year career in the league that enables you to retire from the game with both celebrity and lifetime financial security. However, at age 65, you will begin to show the onset of dementia. 

Do you accept the genie’s offer?

In pre-testing the question, a number of friends and colleagues from outside of the sports world were appalled by the notion and vehemently rejected the genie’s offer. However, the fact that 40% of those surveyed were willing to take the offer (55% of those under age 35) isn’t necessarily surprising to me or several sports industry colleagues that we also pre-tested the question with. And the finding isn’t necessarily inconsistent with the third and fourth “news items” where an overwhelming majority of those surveyed, and the leader of the free world, recognized the seriousness of the concussion issue.

These findings amplify the reality that we have built an industry where conflicting values can co-exist and must be navigated by sports marketers. That is an incredibly sensitive and powerful responsibility for all of us in the business.

I think back to the riveting 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams” or an incredibly candid 2011 quote from former Pittsburgh Steeler Hines Ward, where the All-Pro receiver stated, “If a guy’s contract is coming up and he gets his bell rung — and if he has a concussion, he’ll have to leave the game and maybe miss another one — trust me, he ain’t tellin’ nobody.”

Many ripped Ward for his comment, but I applaud his honesty. Ward wasn’t trying to belittle the seriousness of concussions just as the protagonists in “Hoop Dreams” weren’t blind to how the odds were stacked against their pursuit of NBA glory. Rather, both the comment and film were pragmatic looks at where we are. Sports is big business, and for those lucky enough and skillful enough to compete at the highest level, it is probably both financially and psychically more rewarding than any other potential endeavor.

As sports marketers, we begin with those realities and then craft them into sellable dreams around the aspirational allure of athletes competing at elite levels to represent our cities, our schools and our own American fixation with celebrating “winners” and taking down the “losers.”

Those of us challenged with sorting through the surface-level hypocrisy must decide whether we play only to the core audience that is willing to roll the dice, or be more mindful of a potentially broader audience that rejects or seeks to alter the current product (Though, if you believe the Nielsen numbers, there aren’t many mass audiences larger than the 108+ million who watched the Super Bowl).

Realistically, we probably wind up somewhere in between those two extremes. But is that any different than the compromise that inevitably drives our political landscape? Or to bring it back to a marketing parlance, is it any different than audience segmentation or trends towards multi-tiered SKUs and product customization in more traditional consumer goods? Our responsibility as marketers is to first understand and recognize the contradictions. Our job is then to craft appropriate, audience-specific strategies, to navigate them.