Photo source: Wikipedia
NFL CMO Dawn Hudson should be pinching herself right now because the “deflategate” controversy is a godsend for the league. Allegations that the New England Patriots knowingly provided underinflated footballs for the AFC championship game have created more conversation about the upcoming Super Bowl XLIX than the NFL could have ever dared to manufacture with its own marketing and PR. Deflategate has also elevated Super Bowl XLIX to a battle between good and evil, injecting an element of much-needed drama on the field at a time when the league has reeled from off-the-field controversy. Casual fans who have zero loyalty to New England or Seattle may now be motivated to watch the game in order to see whether the Guardians of the Galaxy from Seattle have what it takes to defeat Darth Vader and his New England minions.
The 2014 Super Bowl was the most-watched television event in history. But between then and now, a number of ugly incidents involving NFL players have damaged the league’s image. (According to YouGov’s BrandIndex, consumer perception of the NFL has dropped by half in one year’s time.) Obviously, fans of the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks are going to watch Super Bowl XLIX February 1, anyway, as will die-hard NFL fans. But the game needs to attract casual fans to match or exceed the 2014 TV-viewing numbers, and the shaky public perception is a cause for worry — which is where deflategate could play an important role.
Casual sports fans might not appreciate the finer points of an NFL game, but they do appreciate drama and spectacle, especially battles between good and evil. Hence, movies as strikingly different as Saving Private Ryan and Raiders of the Lost Ark do great box office by catering to our desire to see the good guys defeat the bad guys (especially World War II era villains who are so cleanly drawn). Sports are no different. For instance:
- In 1988, a college-season matchup between Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Miami Hurricanes, hyped as the “Catholics versus Convicts” match, achieved mythic status before a single down was played because Notre Dame was cast as a squeaky clean defender of good, squaring off against a thuggish Hurricanes squad (or so the hype would have us believe).
- From 1988-1990, as many fans watched the NBA finals to root against the rough-and-tumble Detroit Pistons “Bad Boys” as they did to cheer for the likable, heroic Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazer squads that played against them.
- In 1994, the Winter Olympics short program for women’s figure skating became one of the most watched telecasts in American history because of the rivalry between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. There is no doubt who was cast as good and evil here: Kerrigan, the victim of a highly publicized, bizarre physical attack at the hands of Harding’s ex-husband and bodyguard, versus Harding, cast in the media as a trailer-park lowlife, already tried and convicted by the court of public opinion of being involved in the attack.
The NFL has many examples of good guy/bad guy conflicts. (The Oakland Raiders have built a mythology out of their reputation as outlaws.) One of the most notorious dramas occurred before Super Bowl XIII, when the trash talking of Dallas Cowboy linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson turned the Dallas Cowboys into the unlikely role of bad guy against the noble Pittsburgh Steelers. Henderson played the news media perfectly, hurling personal insults at Steelers Quarterback Terry Bradshaw (about whom Henderson said, “he’s so dumb that he couldn’t spell ‘cat’ if you spotted him the ‘c’ and an ‘a'”), which made for perfect theater and drama — that was, for once, matched by the quality of the game itself, with the Steelers beating the Cowboys by only 4 points.
Ironically, the Seahawks themselves would get cast as the bad guys before Super Bowl XLVIII thanks to Richard Sherman’s memorable moment of trash talking, captured on national television after the NFC championship game on January 19, 2014.
Never mind that Richard Sherman was (and is) a tremendous ambassador for the NFL off the field, and that he was (and is) one of the most exciting players in the game. For many casual fans — the ones who only start paying attention to the NFL during the playoff season, but who are crucial to boost viewership — his chest-thumping diatribe against trash-talking rival Michael Crabtree of the San Francisco 49ers served as their introduction to Sherman. And many fans disliked what they saw and heard, to the point of venting their disdain with ugly, racist rants on social media.
Meantime, the Seahawks’s rivals, the Denver Broncos, featured the all-American boy, Peyton Manning, named by Sports Illustrated as the NFL player of the decade for the 2000s, and published as a co-author of a children’s book to go along with his football exploits. In a column before the game was played, Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “This year’s game is about more than just the Denver Broncos versus the Seattle Seahawks. This game is, in many public perceptions, about good versus evil.” Plaschke then described the many ways the Seahawks personify evil, and the Broncos, all that is good — with Peyton Manning versus Richard Sherman taking center stage. The die was cast. Even as the Seahawks crushed the Broncos, the game was a ratings bonanza.
Richard Sherman is the same outspoken and outstanding player he was a year ago. Since last year’s Super Bowl, as the public has become better acquainted with who Sherman really is, no one really buys into him as being anything to a bad guy. Super Bowl XLIX was actually shaping up to be a drama-free matchup of two teams that have been there, done that — until deflategate.
Now we have a heroes-versus-villains drama. The Seahawks are basking in the happy afterglow of the team’s stunning comeback victory against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game. Sherman is as outspoken as ever, taking shots at the Patriots and Tom Brady in the run-up to the Super Bowl — but this time, he is saying what is probably on the minds of many fans, and, oh, he’s also giving away his jersey to a young fan.
Meantime, the Patriots are defending their actions in the glare of pre-Super Bowl press conferences, and the more they talk, the worse they sound. On January 22, Brady conducted a “train wreck of a press conference,” and Coach Bill Belichick did not fare much better during a January 24 press conference. It does not help that the Patriots were fined for cheating in 2007 and that Belichick plays the perfect bad guy role, coming across as a prickly grump who sucks all the joy out of a room. Fans are taking the bait: the Patriots, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady are among the top trending Google searches in recent days. And the woeful press conferences achieved cultural relevancy through a January 24 Saturday Night Live skit that lampooned the Patriots.
The die has been cast again: good guys against bad guys. It’s all mythic hype, of course. But so long as we willingly suspend disbelief, the NFL will play along.