Roger Goodell is not a man who likes to admit defeat. Just ask Tom Brady. And yet, the intensely stubborn, wildly unpopular commissioner of the NFL might as well have unfurled a giant white flag and personally run it out of the tunnel when he sent a memo to NFL owners on Tuesday.
The subject was the mass kneeling for the National Anthem protest that many NFL players, coaches, and executives have undertaken, and which President Donald Trump has criticized, mocked, and vilified.
“We believe that everyone should stand for the National Anthem. It is an important moment in our game. We want to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us,” the commissioner wrote.
While Goodell made many nods to the social justice concerns players have voiced, he argued all of those involved in the NFL need to “come together on a path forward” that will “protect the game, and preserve our relationship with fans throughout the country” and that, above all, will “move past this controversy,” pronto.
In the 430-word memo, Goodell mentioned “fans” four times for a reason. The team owners — his bosses — are terrified of losing them. And rightly so. Last year’s slight slump in NFL television ratings is turning into a nosedive this year. Some teams are having a hard time getting enough warm bodies in the bleachers on game day. And among those that show up, a few, like Vice President Mike Pence, are walking out in disgust.
In fact, according to a recent survey by the Winston Group, the controversy has turned pro-football from America’s most popular large sport to its least popular, practically overnight. Its approval rating has fallen from 73 to 42 percent and could fall further.
Approval plummeted among every demographic you could reasonably slice up. Men, women, young, old, middle aged: they all hate the great football kneel-in and are increasingly expressing that pique by exercising their right of exit. Expect the NFL to cobble together a new regulation requiring players to stand at attention to stanch the flow.
Trump’s rout of the NFL on this issue is in many ways the mirror image of his 2016 primary performance, when he caught so many opponents flatfooted. Republicans were badly out of touch with their base. Trump knew it and exploited the gap. And now he’s proven the same was true of the leadership of America’s dominant sport, to their great chagrin.
I write these words not to trumpet Trump or to issue any kind of an I-told-you-so. The results are simply stunning. The results are also an important marketing warning that needs to be made to most businesses and other organizations.
Are you still in touch with your audience, or have you perhaps “evolved” and left your audience behind? You might want to give that question some serious thought and not dismiss it too quickly. I mean, if huge brands like the GOP and the NFL can lose touch with their audience and make strategic blunders this large, any business can.
Patrick Hynes is the President of Hynes Communications. He is a consultant who lives in New Hampshire.