Summer’s Biggest Losers? What the NFL and NBA Lockouts Teach PR Pros, Marketers and Fans
By Jason Morley, Stanton Public Relations and Marketing
Anytime two diametrically opposed parties battle publicly, a whole lot of reputational capital is on the line – and rarely does either party come out unscathed.
But when collective bargaining in the sports world pits owners versus players, as we saw with the NFL and are seeing with the NBA lockout, a whole different type of labor dispute plays out. More than ever, it was clear that both sides were far more focused on the opposition than their broad constituencies.
Now that we’re back to the norm for pro football, the great debate about who made out better is certainly being hashed out by columnists and talking heads. In reality, neither side really lost. If games were missed, the real losers would’ve been fans, stadium employees, and corporate partners. But, this is the National Football League; in virtually no time at all, fences have been mended with sponsors and advertising schedules are almost completely back on track. And, it’s pretty unlikely that any hard feelings from the fans will affect television ratings or the league’s popularity.
Last year, pro football in primetime earned higher viewership than competing networks in the same timeslots, often having ratings that doubled whatever reality show or hot new drama landed in a distant second.
So, network television probably won’t lose too much in terms of ratings and revenues. But, labor disputes and lockouts do raise an interesting issue – one that circles back to the issue of who faces the biggest downside or “loses most” in these situations.
Here’s an answer most people might not immediately give you: “infotainment” media outlets, which have become inextricably tied to a professional sports.
Some could argue that there are other sports and still ample news to keep the media busy and the fans interested. Nope…not when we’re talking about pro football. Need proof of just how critical professional football is to keeping an inflated sports “infotainment” industry alive:
- Fantasy football is a multi-billion dollar industry – and it draws more attention than many “real” sports news. After spending about ten seconds on any major website that covers it or provides access to leagues (e.g. ESPN.com, NFL.com, Yahoo.com, SI.com), it’s easy to recognize how much it means to those sites.
- Headlines about “Day Forty-Six of the Lockout” or “Player Organized Practices at Local High Schools” simply don’t cut it. In a truncated period of free agency, where four months of roster moves occurred in a week, New York media were more enamored with rumors of a top-tier free agent that the Jets were eyeing that even the Big Apple’s beloved New York Yankees potential trade deadline dealings could barely edge the back page of the city’s commuter dailies.
The league was undoubtedly aware that letting a deal go undone would leave thousands of indirect victims in the wake of what the public perceived to be overpaid athletes and robber baron owners. It avoided the ultimate calamity of having cities across the country wake up to ongoing headlines citing thousands losing their jobs at stadiums and with concession vendors. In a sluggish economy, that may have been a legitimate black eye. The point being that the indirect impact can often present the most risk. Those symbiotic relationships that organizations have, much like the NFL and the sports media, mean more than the insiders sometimes recognize in the heat of battle with their direct opposition.
The NBA is in a lockout and has far less wiggle room and, believe it or not, far bigger financial problems. Its reputation and efforts to create resurgence in fan interest is also on the line to a far greater degree.
- While owners and players fight out their issues, the NBA’s work to build a stronger product will suffer. Corporate sponsors and advertisers that have put a whole lot of their eggs into the NBA basket, using it to reach key demographics and valuable audiences with expendable income, may not be so forgiving with a league that simply doesn’t have the clout that the NFL has earned. A whole lot of work creating strategic partnerships with companies like Kia, Sprite, and McDonald’s, have helped pull the NBA upward.
- On top of that, the NBA cannot come and go as it pleases (as the NFL apparently can) because media simply won’t allow it. It’s dealt with an inability to secure consistent network coverage in primetime by cutting massive deals to get more games televised on cable networks like TNT and TBS. Earning back airtime will be tough if it leaves long enough to be replaced by successful programming in those types of venues.
The NFL has essentially avoided damage to its reputation or significant losses in revenue and/or opportunity by wrapping things up relatively quickly, and keeping its dispute from spilling over and affecting indirect parties. If the NBA doesn’t do the same – and it’s pretty unlikely it will be able to – the damage to its reputation will make the situation a “loss” for everyone.
Communication professionals need not be a fan to learn this lesson: Just like in any conflict for any organization, navigating the pitfalls and reputation risks involves seeing the potential impact on every constituency – not just the one that is on the other side of the table.
Jason Morley is an Assistant Account Supervisor at Stanton Public Relations & Marketing (www.StantonPRM.com) in New York City, a leading business-to-business, corporate, and financial firm that provides strategic public relations and brand marketing to clients across a broad range of industry sectors. He received a Bachelor’s degree in Communication at Monmouth University (NJ) and a Master’s degree in Public Relations and Corporate Communications at New York University.