About 24 hours ago, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell took to a podium in Atlanta, host city of Super Bowl LIII, and scored a win. He scored a bigger loss.
There are several reasons why the annual State of the League press conference was a toss-up, and each are posts unto their own. My focus here the end user: NFL fans.
A former NFL player asked my one-word impression of 2019 Goodell after the presser. I said, “evasive.” If you’re someone who wants to avoid sensitive topics, you repeat a few key words of a reporter’s question and talk in circles so that it sounds to an average listener that you’re saying something. They may not understand it, but you answered the question — sort of — right? Well … to this degree, Goodell scored with a public-relations tactic that I call “keep away.” You show up, but you pass off topics as someone else’s challenge, e.g. Kaepernick, officiating and minorities in the game, to name a few.
The loss I’ve been thinking about the last 24 hours is on behalf of NFL fans — people who buy tickets, merchandise, watch games on all sorts of media and truly love the game. I’m reminded of former Oakland Raiders’ executive Amy Trask’s surprise that she went beyond anything she’d seen from other team’s personnel when she went out to experience things from a fan’s standpoint (as described in You Negotiate Like a Girl: Reflections on a Career in the National Football League by Trask and Mike Freeman). I’ve had fans in the back of my mind throughout the years I’ve worked in sports publicity, but in working to appease coaches and administrators/personnel, I think there are times I don’t think about fans enough. They should be front of mind.
Enter Goodell during the State of the League event in Atlanta. A lead story among NFL reporters and on talk shows for nearly two weeks was a botched no-call during the NFC Championship game between the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints. Especially in an era where increased player safety is a priority, it was egregious, and it deserved the air time and space it got. But two weeks?
The discussion lasted that long and an upcoming Super Bowl matchup took a back seat because Goodell, the leader of the NFL — didn’t address the issue in public. When asked about it during the press conference yesterday, he said that he had spoken privately to Saints coach Sean Payton and team owner Gayle Benson about the officiating error.
That’s nice. But what about the fans? Not just Saints fans, but every NFL fan who saw two officials within close proximity of the play that wasn’t called … and every fan that wonders what will be done in the future to improve officiating because their team could be on the short end of a critical call, next.
Goodell explained the human element of NFL officiating and that he didn’t favor or anticipate more gadget help because “technology is not going to solve all of these issues.”
At that point, I could sense fans watching on their DVRs or stream later in the day throwing up their hands in disbelief because they see every play — because of technology. There are cameras most everywhere in stadiums. Why couldn’t or shouldn’t officiating be improved with it?
When you dismiss something that could improve a product consumed by the public before it’s even considered, you disrespect that demographic. In that case, it’s the fans.
Fans are smart. They read about record league income and a megazillion event held each year to host the biggest sports event in the country, and the league’s leader, who didn’t address them for nearly two weeks, brushes off the idea that existing technology wouldn’t be considered for better officiating. Hmmm …
People may say, “it’s one play; let it go.” But it’s more. Officiating has been a Top 3 topic in the NFL since the beginning of the season. I don’t say scrap the rule book (simplify it, yes), but fans know the product can be better. So why shouldn’t it? Technology is there. If you make positive changes to the game, your league will make MORE money.
So think what you will. In my mind, Commissioner Goodell won the public-relations evasion game during his press conference. He lost it when he disrespected fans.
©Gail Sideman, gpublicity.com, 2019