Professional sports is a capitalist endeavor that is a bottom line business: the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB are multi-billion dollar monopolies that drive American culture. We can’t watch enough of elite athletes performing as assassins or killers on the field or court. We glorify the Floyd Mayweather’s, the Muhammad Ali’s, the Deion Sanders and the Kobe Bryant’s. The personalities are bigger than the sports they play. As a society we have enabled them to live by a different set of rules their entire lives because they can run faster, hit harder, make incredible plays and hit gaming winning shots. Then we expect them to cage their personas, which have made them millions of dollars, off the field. I am in no way justifying domestic violence, child abuse or any form of illegal or unethical activity. I am just giving you the lay of the land.
The Spin Cycle: The Court of Public Opinion
In the U.S. 31% of women have experienced domestic abuse. For years NFL players have gone unchecked about their off the field misconduct which in many cases has been sweep under the rug. But in reality the NFL is a microcosm of what we see in society. We are more aware of the domestic violence issues with athletes versus regular citizens because of their high profile lives. Everything they do is magnified.
The rules have changed. With 24/7 broadcast coverage and social media engagement, off the field issues are not just legal in nature, athletes are now being tried in the court of public opinion. Today a player can make a statement or post a negative tweet and it will be difficult to undo the damage once it is posted even if it is deleted. If you impact the bottom line of the team or the league, you become collateral damage if you are a second tier player. Players who are the face of the league potentially have a longer shelf life.
The Ray Rice Case: The Cost of Poor Character
Women represent 45% of the NFL fan base so the Ray Rice domestic violence issue isn’t going away anytime soon. The initial economic fallout: 7,000+ Ray Rice jerseys were returned, his Ravens playing contract, Nike footwear and EA Sports (Madden ‘15) deals were terminated. In less than a week he lost $1.6M annually in endorsements and the remaining balance of a 5-year $35M contract with the Ravens. This case proves there is a high price for poor character.
Even companies like Budweiser have threatened to cancel their $1.6B sponsorship with the NFL based upon the handling of the Adrian Peterson child abuse case. This is interesting since there is a clear connection to the influence of alcohol and player misconduct off the field.
Managing Your Brand through Crisis
Every athlete at some point in their playing career will have to manage through a crisis. But who will be there to help them through it? The athlete has spent the majority of their life focusing on being elite at their sport and typically outsourcing the responsibility to their childhood friends, their former AAU coaches or some tag along who is ill prepared for the crisis.
The brand value of an athlete consists of their athletic ability and a term I call “Invisible Capital”. Invisible Capital is defined by intangibles such as trust, character, personality and likeability that can be monetized. It also enables athletes to make money above their athletic ability off the field and beyond their playing career. Invisible capital is a very fragile asset and is often mismanaged by most athletes. The reputation of an athlete can be damaged to the point of no return where winning the battle in the justice system is a mere formality. Remember Ray Rice isn’t fighting a legal battle but one of public opinion.
Who is responsible for managing the behavior of the professional athlete? Is it the commissioner, the league, the team, the agent, the legal system or the athlete themselves? The same platform that empowers athletes to become global icons and amass millions of dollars is the same platform that could become their demise. Ultimately, the athlete is responsible for managing their brand.
Disclaimer: If a player wants to be an idiot and ruin his career there isn’t much you can do for him. With the average value of an NFL team being $1.43B and the average NBA team being $634M (this value was prior to the Clippers selling for $2B) every professional sports team can’t afford to be without a Brand Strategist. A good Brand Strategist should proactively educate the players and prepare the organization in the areas of digital strategy, character development, reputation and crisis management before an incident happens. The bottom line in business is character related issues represent billions of dollars in lost revenue and opportunity. Poor character cost, but a good Brand Strategist is priceless.