NFL doing little to help its brand

Posted June 01, 2011 @ 2:23 p.m.
Posted By Mike Wilkening

Over Memorial Day weekend, we saw two spectacular finishes to auto races: a final-lap crash at the Indy 500 by rookie J.R. Hildebrand, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. running out of fuel with open road and the checkered flag ahead of him at the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte.

On Tuesday, the NBA Finals began, and what a compelling matchup: East champion Miami, finding its best stride late in the season, vs. West champion Dallas, which has sliced through playoff competition with precision.

The NFL, of course, is in a lockout. It is not as if a lot would be going on in the league even if business as usual were the order of the day, but the uncertainty regarding when the labor dispute will end increases.

Note how I didn't say all was quiet — that's not the case at all. Any story, even a sliver of one, is going to get play under these circumstances. It is what it is.

And that is a potential problem for the NFL. Any bad news that hits Twitter, the Web and the newsprint is amplified, for there is simply less other news to absorb it and sweep it out of the news cycle.

For instance, we have seen news of teams cutting pay, whether through salary reductions or furloughs, as the lockout goes on. Chris Pika, a former public relations staffer with the Falcons and Saints, is tracking reports of the cuts at his website, blogandtackle.net.

Now, if teams opened their books, perhaps we would have a better idea of where they stood from a cash standpoint, and we could begin to understand why cuts were necessary, even in an offseason where veteran free agency has yet to begin. Also, teams are selling more season tickets than expected, NFL owners were told last week at their meetings in Indianapolis, SportsBusiness Journal reported Tuesday.

I'm not waiting for clubs to start releasing more financial data. These are private companies (save for the Packers), and their business is their business. I get it. So we are left to sift through the news that comes out about pay cuts and make our own decisions.

I will keep an open mind on the reasons the organizations have cut pay have chosen to do so. I just don't have all of the information. What I do know is that such cuts aren't easy on those who take them. Nothing — nothing — softens them. 

Perception is everything. And the longer the lockout goes on, the NFL stands to lose in the court of public opinion. NFL owners need to be wary of how their product is being perceived and damaging their league's brand.

What is their product right now? The game tied up in the courts, but we haven't stopped paying attention to the league. Instead, we're left to parse every statement made by those connected to the game and play psychologist and detective to drive at the meaning of everything the clubs are doing. And that is assuming you're giving the league the benefit of the doubt. Not everyone is going to do that. Adjusting the compensation of employees in the midst of a lockout just doesn't look good. Nor does canceling the annual rookie symposium, which the NFLPA will reprise.  

Rolling eyes might look elsewhere. The IndyCar Series and NASCAR probably gained themselves some new supporters on Sunday. The NBA surely relishes a chance to stage a championship series with the NFL distracted, although the NBA itself seems primed for a big-time labor fight in the months ahead. 

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell keeps making the rounds speaking to season-ticket holders. That is good marketing and wise. But all of Goodell's good will isn't going to help the league if this labor dispute continues and keeps the game off the field. Every time news of an NFL team cutting pay leaks, the shield gets scratched a little, and all we see is the reflection of a lot of furrowed brows, shaking their heads at business people making some curious decisions.