Is NFL Brand Safe? - Rob Norman

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This is a personal commentary and in no way reflects the perspectives or opinions of GroupM or any other WPP company.

Very few stadia are used for the same activity for more than three hundred years. Such distinction belongs, perhaps uniquely, to the Coliseum in Rome that stayed open for gladiator action from around 80AD to 435AD. Amazingly it did this without TV revenue or selling the naming rights. The economics of course were helped by the presence of all powerful owners (no change there) and nothing much in the way of a labor deal representing the gladiators or animal rights activists representing the lions. For those who took their pleasure in this way it was probably a good thing as it's unlikely that fights to the death would have been considered brand safe by major advertisers, had there been any.

These days brand owners are a little more selective; on the "I don't think so list" are (for some at least), skateboarding cats, Ultimate Fighting and the Jersey Shore. Rarely, however, do we hear the "brand safe" argument applied to football or hockey (a game that used to be played professionally in the winter months). Events of recent weeks in Kansas City, Dallas and more generally in medical research facilities might start that very conversation. Most often described as tragic, these incidents, even if isolated, are developing into a narrative that is beginning to reveal flaws in the game itself and flaws in the character of some of the people that play.

It's impossible to think about this without reference to boxing. At the dawn of television and radio boxing was a staple until a combination of financial motive (for promoters and fighters), technology (closed circuit cinema and PPV), and a questionable safety record took boxing off the networks and into a place where CPM's were 1000's of times greater than broadcast and allowed both the money to be made and those with a taste for blood to be entertained. UFC maintains this strategy today.

Football and Hockey have a long way to go before the pressure to change the rules or restrict access to the game reach boiling point but the proverbial frog is in the pan and this represents a commercial threat to advertisers who, particularly in the case of football, rely on the game to produce increasingly scarce massive audiences that build reach with a frequency of occurrence that no other media property matches. For mass marketers this is really important and needs to be protected.

There is no doubting the spectacle of football and the emotional attachment to it of devout and casual fans but like off-field soccer hooliganism in Europe in the 1970's and 1980's something has to change if the golden goose is to continue laying the precious eggs we call GRPs and remain a sport to which advertisers attach themselves with pride.

I am sure that many of us have our own thoughts on how this might be done but I would like to offer three changes for a start:

1. No driver's licenses for players under contract – town cars will fit in the budget

2. No firearms licenses for players under contract – you really don't need to go hunting in the off season

3. Leather helmets – your propensity to lead with your head will be somewhat reduced

You can reach Rob at @robnorman or

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