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If the NFL is going to rethink its mission, now is the time

Watching the Super Bowl with an eye on the NFL in changing times.

If the NFL is going to rethink its mission, now is the time
[Photo: Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated/Getty Images]
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Though viewership numbers are down overall, reports of football’s death have been greatly exaggerated (so far). In fact, throughout last November’s U.S. election cycle, football dominated the ratings. Sports can be a welcome distraction and unifier during divisive times, despite the ways social issues play out on the field and the sidelines.

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Football faces serious challenges, from player safety questions so significant they threaten the ability to secure insurance to a culture often associated with abuse. Yes, the NFL is hopefully finally putting some muscle behind the paeans to teamwork and sportsmanship. And there’s a crowded field of good causes supported by the league, its clubs, and individual players. In my view, that’s part of the problem.

Nike was right: You need to stand for something. I’d add that your purpose should be inspiring, measurable, and uniquely yours. What’s the purpose of the NFL beyond making money? Its mission is “inspire and unify fans and communities and leave a meaningful impact.” Bleh. For a sport that prizes work ethic, that purpose doesn’t work nearly hard enough. And that’s a shame (sometimes literally).

The NFL has what other organizations only dream of: The game has always gone beyond marketing, and truly matters to people. With its 100th anniversary starting with this Super Bowl, the NFL has a platinum opportunity to do more than celebrate its past. Smart companies use anniversaries to articulate a compelling forward-looking vision backed by a strategic program to bring that purpose to life. That’s what the NFL needs now.

From the looks of things, Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL aren’t quite sure what its purpose should be in the modern era. That’s okay. Purpose is an ongoing journey, and an anniversary is the perfect opportunity to define a memorable and meaningful reason that football still matters, beyond beer and bragging rights.

At its best, defining a shared purpose takes bold top-down leadership as well as true bottom-up involvement, and a sideways-in view. For that NFL, that will take deep listening to the voices of current players, from the pros to Pop Warner. It will mean providing opportunities for fans to articulate why the football tradition matters to them, and what the brand should mean moving forward. It will require unprecedented willingness of coaches and owners to engage in new ways of thinking (and consult their millennial children, even).

Like other organizations that have been radically disrupted, the NFL needs to realize that storied old brands (Sears, anyone?) and truisms may not always be true. Rewind 10 years, and could anyone picture a celebrity turning down a star turn at the Super Bowl half-time show?And yet.

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In solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, stars like Rihanna and Jay-Z reportedly passed on the chance to perform on the world’s largest stage. Now, more than 100,000 people have joined a Change.org petition calling on Maroon 5 to take a knee. (My guess? Any form of protest is explicitly banned in their contract.) The petition demands the NFL change its policy and allow players a greater right to protest.

In this climate, any connection to the NFL can appear political. Whether your organization is running an ad around the game or is associated with pro sports in some way (Sell merch? Tap athletes as spokespeople? Create joint content or community programs?), be prepared to articulate your policy.

To build trust, start with employees, and talk to them in advance. They’re arguably your most important audience, and they want to know your position. What you say should depend on how you use that precious airtime.

But let’s face it: The ads are the main reason many of us tune in (which should send another shiver down Commissioner Goodell’s spine). Here are a few purpose-oriented spots to watch for:

• Kia will break with its celebrity-driven past and ask, “What if a few of those celebrity paychecks got set aside to help un-famous people? What if this year in some way, it was about the rest of us?” The point seems to align with its brand ethos, and the ad will launch “The Great Unknowns Scholarship,” which reflects the company’s ongoing support for education.

• Mercedes-Benz, in contrast, will combine celebrity and education. A preview shows Ludacris giving two deserving students tickets to the Super Bowl (played in the car maker’s U.S. hometown).

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• Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Stella Artois is expected to build on last year’s spot featuring Matt Damon and Water.org. A preview 15-second online video stars Sarah Jessica Parker reprising her role from Sex in the City. Bud’s Dalmatian and Clydesdales are all the star power it needs as it touts that it’s made with wind power.

• Verizon again will salute first responders, telling emotional stories of the football players they’ve rescued in a spot dubbed “the team that wouldn’t be here.” The relevance to Verizon’s core business is on display in the tagline, “first responders answer the call. Our job is to make sure they can get it.” Wisely, the company doesn’t end there. When you share those stories on social with #AllOurThanks, Verizon will donate $1, up to $1.5M to First Responders Outreach, funding emergency relief, training, and essential equipment.

• Olay and Bumble are generating buzz for women-driven ads. But, is merely marketing to women (even if the ad is produced by a female team) enough to be a cause?


Carol Cone, CEO of Carol Cone ON PURPOSE, is one of the foremost experts in social purpose, having pioneered early social impact initiatives in the 1980s. She champions innovation in social purpose, continually working to accelerate its evolution for business and social impact with the power to change the world.