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Super Bowl Hangover: Is the NFL Brand at Risk Due to Concussion Lawsuits?

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Enjoy the Super Bowl. Speaking as a marketing expert, if National Football League executives continue to dilute the NFL's prime brand, the game of football may not be super much longer.

The NFL brand, with its hard-hitting action evoking the gladiators of the Roman coliseum, has come to represent a worldwide leader in sports and entertainment. In a world that is perceived to have gone soft, the NFL brand owns the niche of selling warrior bravado; the perception of participation in an epic battle of dueling cities; the opportunity to defend one's own, naturally-superior, even noble, city.

Thanks to the hard-hitting, blood, sweat, and tears mentality of its players, the NFL has mastered channeling regional pride into a billion dollar entertainment enterprise. It owns the "hero" whitespace in a way that our national "past its prime" baseball or even actual wars do not.

Doubt me? Consider the military metaphors of the broadcast booth. Quarterbacks are referred to as "field generals." A deep pass is a "long bomb." Moving the ball down the field is going into the opposing team's "territory." Even America's sweetheart pacifist Lisa Simpson of The Simpsons once said, "What could be better than the savage ballet that is professional football?"

Heck, the NFL pads even resemble the armor worn by the gladiators of old and the military of today. As a kid I still remember the injustice of Pittsburgh Steeler Jack Lambert being ejected for an allegedly late hit on Browns quarterback Brian Sipe. Later, Lambert told ABC Sports Howard Cosell, "Quarterbacks should wear dresses." These types of personalities built the NFL brand from a game into real life epic battle stories that are more relevant than movies, books, plays or opera. The World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) likewise grew dramatically after pitching easy storylines any testosterone-fueled young man could get passionate about (e.g., Hulk Hogan versus Iron Sheik).

But in the case of the NFL, all this may be ending, as recent developments threaten the NFL's marketing niche. In July 2011, multiple lawsuits were filed claiming the NFL knowingly concealed data about the dangers of concussions. It's thought that multiple concussions increase the probability of memory loss, depression and degenerative brain disease. The suicide deaths of many ex-NFL players have been blamed on football-related brain injuries.

The NFL vigorously contests the claims made in the lawsuits, stating "The NFL has long made player safety a priority and continues to take steps to protect players and to advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions."

Indeed, the NFL has taken the issue of concussions very seriously by increasing the scrutiny and dollar amounts of fines for helmet-to-helmet hits and changing the kickoff starting point from the 30-yard line to the 35. These measures are an attempt to decrease the number of kickoff returns and supposedly the likelihood of injuries from an 11-man kickoff team running with a 70 yard head of steam against a stationary return man.

But worrisome for the NFL is the fact that this reduction in contact has players and fans alike outraged. Steelers linebacker James Harrison referred to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as a "devil" because of the penalties for his seven infractions in three years.

As an expert in the field of marketing, I know that great brands are built by filling an unmet need with targeted passion. I believe the NFL lost some of its marketing power when it moved from the edginess of "sport" to the middle ground of "safe, family entertainment." I believe reducing the number of hits and kickoff returns will decrease the equity of the NFL brand. If fans perceive the NFL is becoming little more than non-contact, flag football, the NFL's core base will shift its time and money into other faux battles featuring more authentic heroes engaged in seemingly epic battles.

If NFL rules continue to reduce the number and ferocity of hits the equity of the football brand will decrease. This will open the door for other sports with bravado, warrior and hero identities to grow. Which sports might benefit? Look to NASCAR, the National Hockey League and the mixed martial arts Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

If you don't believe the smaller crowds of mixed martial arts could ever rival the NFL, or that the popularity of the NFL could ever substantially decrease, take a look at photos of the bleachers in the first couple of Super Bowls -- they were mostly empty. Baseball really was the national pastime -- for decades.

Boxing was a leading spectator sport in the 20th century until its tactics turned from combat to "grab and hold." Watch out, NFL: Part of what has made the popularity of the UFC surge is that it returns spectator sports to the one-to-one combat so popular in original form of bare-knuckle boxing. A UFC event last April sold all 55,000 tickets, for a reported revenue of $11 million, in an astonishing few minutes.

All brands have a life cycle -- some day, some time, the NFL will cease to be relevant. As I am a fan of the NFL, I hope it doesn't happen in my lifetime -- or, at least, it happens before league executives make quarterbacks wear dresses. When it comes to dress watching, I prefer Gisele Bundchen over Tom Brady.

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