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Dawn Hudson has a lot of work to do. As the NFL’s newly appointed CMO, Hudson enters a maelstrom of controversy caused by the league’s failure to deal with repugnant off-the-field behavior of high-profile players like Ray Rice. But the NFL is not the only big-time sports brand that has faced hard times. In the early 1980s, the National Basketball Association was on the brink of failure due to the outlaw reputation of its players. In 1980, the Los Angeles Times famously reported that 75 percent of NBA players were regular cocaine users. The league was plagued by dwindling attendance and low TV ratings. But eventually, the NBA reclaimed the loyalty of sports fans. Hudson would do well to learn from the three reasons why the NBA battled back from the brink:
1. Change Starts with the Players
Fortune smiled on the NBA when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird joined the league at the same time during the 1979-80 season. They were not only great basketball players who turned the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics into contenders; they were outstanding ambassadors off the court. Bird and Magic were not choirboys (a reality that would hit home many years later with Magic Johnson’s historic announcement that he had contracted HIV). But during a period when they were needed most, they gradually created fans with their earnest (in Bird’s case) and joyous (in Magic’s case) approach to playing basketball and living their lives.
Photo source: historyrat.wordpress.com
Their dedication to teamwork and single-minded pursuit of excellence were like a throwback to another time, when sports stars earned attention for the quality of their play instead of their rap sheets. But there was also something different about these two: they had personality, and they didn’t embarrass the league with their off-the-court behavior. Johnson was charismatic and boyish. Bird was the cocky but likeable country boy.
And then during the 1984-85 season, Michael Jordan took the best qualities of both Magic and Bird — Magic’s boundless enthusiasm and Bird’s tough competitiveness — and created something that the public had never seen in an NBA player. His ascendance in the mid-1980s (along with the winnowing away of the generation of players who dominated the 1970s) slammed the door shut on the bad old days of the NBA.
Long before he became known as the leader of the world champion Chicago Bulls, Jordan had already created a brand onto himself that transcended the NBA. He not only played hard but, like Bird and Johnson, off the court he drew attention for all the right reasons. He was the kind of guy people wanted to like, not just root for during a game. What he did for the game has already been well documented, but you cannot overstate his impact: he made even non-sports fans love the NBA.
A lesson for the NFL: The NBA’s turnaround started when a newer generation of players convinced sports fans that it was safe to start believing in the athletes, who are the heart and soul of any sporting organization.
2. You Need to Show Fans a Commitment to Improvement Continue reading