Shane’s Soapbox- How agile marketers can take advantage of the NFL Referee Lockout Controversy
For those of you not living in the US, the 2012 American football season has recently begun with an unresolved labour dispute causing considerable controversy: The referees union and the NFL owners cannot agree ON a new contract and so the latter has locked out the former and brought in replacement referees, none of whom have any experience at this highly charged and scrutinzed level. Most were plucked from high school or small college duties (with many similar but also differing rules) to go work in front of 70,000 screaming fans, abusive coaches and millions of TV viewers.
Guess what? They haven’t been perfect, although by no means have they been completely out of their depth- there have been some lamentable mistakes, which is to be expected, but then last night, the worst case scenario happened: On the final play of a game the refs awarded the wrong team victory as a result of incorrectly ruling on which team caught the ball. It was a real clanger, an obvious mistake regular officials would not have made. So now the standoff has altered the competitive landscape in a sport in which every games outcome has tremendous meaning at the end of a 16 game season.
This morning sports talk radio and ESPN went nuclear while even local and broadcast news plus the President and former President Clinton weighed in on the issue- basically everything went nuts and Madonna will soon have her backup dancers dressed like referees. Its even rumoured the losing teams city may become Canadian in protest. Stepping back from the hyperbole and talk of sports Armageddon, there are a few dimensions to this ‘scandal’ that offer opportunities for nimble footed marketers to take advantage of:
1. The stalemate between the referees and the NFL is at heart a battle between a union trying to protect & improve the working conditions of its members (more pay, better benefits) while their corporate employer wants to trim overhead while upgrading productivity (fewer benefits, longer hours) This kind of battle between unions and big corporations ( the NFL makes 10 billion in revenue per year, the union wants $5 million more per year) happens all across America. It also neatly draws a line under the two presidential candidates platforms which align perfectly with each side (Romney is a multimillionaire accused of slashing salaries and benefits at his businesses) while Obama is a former union activist who supported the recent decision in Chicago to give in to striking teachers similar demands) Ad space is highly priced and in scarce supply for the run up to the Presidential Election, why not redirect some of your investment to this universal debate? Buying air time during an NFL game is expensive but given the increased scrutiny in the minutae of the game i.e. engagement, why not double down now on your position. Its the the best drama on TV and surpasses the awkward vitriol and ideological mud slinging associated with political programming.
2. Lets say you don’t have the luxury of dialing up a zone blitz on your NFL programming, there’s still plenty of incremental NFL content out there to be had in the digital space. Now that there are weekly multiple instances of poor decision making by referees being turned into online video clips, all watercooler friendly, stake a place in the white heat of Monday morning game reviews and highlights- there is always more online video content than buyers and it can be had for a song with the right relationships in place. I would add that a brand like Bing.com which has spent hundreds of millions marketing itself as variously ‘”The Decision Engine” “Bing Helps You Decide” and “Bing and Decide” would jump right in feet first and make hay, but that would be too intuitive a ‘decision’ for a brand that has never seen the value of aligning even with fantasy sports.
3. While Pittsburg Steeler fan is a global plague ( I encountered ~75 of them (very well behaved btw) kitted out in jerseys at 4pm in a sports bar in Beijing during a playoff game in 2009) and the Dallas Cowboys market themselves as ‘Americas Team’ (which considering their continued lack on field success aligns nicely with the ignominous state of the American Economy), the NFL, like other sports codes, is usually a geo targeting gem. Right now the good people of Green Bay and the state of Wisconsin, on the losing end last night, could do with some support and sympathy (football is a religion there) so if thats a key market for you, now’s the time to show some love. Rust belt states with a big union & NFL presence (Michigan, Ohio, Illinois) are most likely to see the dispute favorably to the referees. Of course to capitalize on these week to week marketing opportunities takes cash money and an agile marketing strategy, which might be more trouble than its worth for everyone sans challenger brands. Why not build out a template of display media executions that can be quickly edited and launched, or target search copy and keywords in real time to align with whats happening on the field. Plus plenty of humor & goodwill to be had for the quick thinking marketer that can channel fan sentiment to productive ends.
In conclusion, the current controversy surrounding Americas favorite sport is transcending the sport itself and becoming a dinner table, train station and elevator conversation- it pits two stakeholders every American can relate to, either exclusively or just in terms of how a compromise should be negotiated. There are no clear good guys are bad guys, something America historically must have defined in order to have a stake in the narrative. Sadly the conventional wisdom is the stalemate will continue on, with both sides not prepared to move off their respective deal breakers (pension versus pay) with each week awkwardly offering new leverage opportunities for either side ( bad calls, player injuries advantage union- no big clangers, gap closing in competency versus regular referees) Hopefully there will be a decent movie made and not just one of those made for TV efforts with William Forsythe as the creepy commish and Tony Danza as the plucky union guy)
Full overview of the controversy via Peter King @ Sports Illustrated