Recently, the NFL’s bone rattling tackling has been getting a lot of attention. The league has been handing out fines and suspensions for “overly aggressive” hits, and the sports media have been dedicating significant air time to the subject.

So what does this have to do with marketing? Everything. The NFL appears to be struggling to determine where to draw the line between clean, hard tackling, and dangerous, malicious play. The decisions they make today will potentially affect their brand long term.

An evolving product

Product is an important part of a brand. The NFL’s product is entertainment. An entertaining show sells tickets. It sells expensive licensed merchandise. It draws millions of television viewers who justify substantial advertising and sponsorship dollars. And, as evidenced by highlight shows that feature players getting their bells rung, hard hitting has always been a part of the NFL’s entertainment product. In fact, you could even say that one of the main selling points of the NFL is violence. We all groan a little bit when we see a receiver getting crushed by a linebacker after running a route across the middle. Then we press rewind on our DVRs to watch it again. And again.

If the NFL changes their product by cracking down on these hits, then the perception of the brand will likely change as well. For now, it appears as though just such a product change is underway. And everyone has an opinion on what this will do to the game. Bloggers, fans, sports journalists and even players and coaches are weighing in. Some are suggesting that this change will lead to a less exciting game. Others contend that if nothing is done, star players will get hurt, and THAT will make the game less entertaining. In other words, some see this product change as detrimental to the brand. Others see it as a positive, necessary evolution of the brand.

An enduring brand

This isn’t the first time that there has been controversy and disagreement around what is right for the NFL brand. There are numerous examples of changes that have occurred over the years. Many of those changes had to do with protecting players, and ultimately, protecting the brand.

Have you ever seen the pictures of the old leather helmets that provide very little protection? In the 70s, goalposts were moved from the front of the end zone to the back, and new blocking rules were implemented to protect players. In the 90s, hits with the helmet by a defender started to be flagged, and fines were introduced. And in the 2000s, additional emphasis was placed on protecting quarterbacks.

Many, if not all of these changes evoked complaints that the game was being ruined, and this would be the downfall of the NFL. Interestingly, the NFL is alive and well, and even thriving. Why? Because great brands know how to evolve and stay relevant.

Ultimately, the fans will decide if the NFL makes the right decisions. Ticket sales, T-shirt sales and TV viewing will tell if fans still support the brand. It is an interesting time in the league. But if history is any indication, the brand will survive this challenge and endure for years to come.