A war is brewing between the National Football League and American journalists. And it's a good example of how even the most successful businesses sometimes shoot themselves in the foot with overly zealous marketing.
The NFL is the most successful professional sports organization in history. Much of the credit goes to former commissioner Pete Rozelle, who understood the nature of the product he was selling to consumers. Under his leadership, the NFL surpassed Major League Baseball as America's most-watched sports league. Part of Rozelle's formula was to make the NFL as accessible as your parents. I remember going to games in Minneapolis and Green Bay early in my career. I had to have a press pass, of course. But no one spent much time, effort or money policing the sidelines or the press box. It was understood that any news coverage of the game was good news coverage.
But all that's changed. In recent years, the NFL has sought to bar local news photographers from shooting video of the games. When press organizations raised a stink about that policy, the NFL had to give in. But now they've found a new way to drive away local photographers. Beginning in September, the NFL is requiring news photographers from local papers and TV stations to wear a special vest that includes advertising for the league's marketing partners.
The NFL's Greg Aiello says the league has to "carefully manage our media assets that generate revenue and makes the league run and pays the players".
But sports photojournalist Michael Zagaris of San Francisco thinks there's a different, more sinister motive. He believes it's another effort to get rid of any photographer whose paycheck is not signed by the NFL.
Journalists object to a rule that forces them to be walking billboards for the NFL's marketing partners, like Reebok and Canon. How does an objective journalist wear these company logos on Sunday, in full view of thousands of football fans, and then cover the misdeeds of those companies on Monday? Journalists rightly believe that news consumers-who already hold the media in low regard-will lose even more faith in their local reporters and photographers.
The NFL has correctly concluded that this ridiculous policy will cause them no harm among 99% of fans. But they have miscalculated the harm it will do to their relationships with the press. When journalists feel they are at odds with the organizations they are covering, it can sometimes have a subtle influence on the coverage itself. Suddenly, reporters who are embarrassed about being forced into these vests may start looking for negative stories to cover within the NFL.
With the bad press Michael Vick has already given the NFL this year, the league certainly doesn't need another black eye. Yet that's exactly what they are risking in this misguided effort to "manage... media assets".
Can anyone at the NFL demonstrate a single instance where the old press pass policy led to problems on the field? Of course not. There was never a problem. The NFL is antagonizing local reporters, photographers, editors and anchors for the sole purpose of forcing them to leave the stadiums. And why? So that fans never again see pictures or video of their beloved multi-million-dollar quarterback giving them the finger. Because without independent press coverage, there will be nothing to stop the league from "sanitizing" all the images we see.
If the NFL is successful, what's to stop Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL from doing the same thing? And if that happens, ordinary citizens will be the real losers.
NFL officials might want to ask themselves if the cure is worse than the disease.