As most people know by now, the Aaron Hernandez saga came to a harsh ending this past week. On Wednesday, after seven days of jury deliberation and months of legal proceedings, a Boston jury found Hernandez guilty of first-degree murder. The conviction carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.
Besides effectively ending the free life of Hernandez, the verdict has serious ramifications for the NFL.
The bottom line is, no matter how hard the NFL tries to distance themselves from Hernandez and this case, they will always be engrained with him in the public eye. We will always see Hernandez as a criminal from the NFL and not simply just a criminal.
This is a huge problem for the NFL brand. It is especially troubling to the league that millennials are particularly disturbed by the recent events. In a study done by USC marketing professor Jeetendr Sehdev, he determined the Hernandez murder conviction accelerated the downturn in the league’s perception, making it one of America’s least trusted brands in just three years.
According to Sehdev, an astonishing 61 percent of millennials rated the NFL as a sleazy organization on a scale of 1 to 10, with “1” being respectable and “10” being sleazy. That’s compared to just 48 percent who regarded them in this sleazy light beforehand.
“What we’re really seeing are issues when it comes to trust. There’s a lack of openness (related to concussions), a lack of acceptance (related to race and sexual orientation), and a lack of compassion,” Sehdev said. Respondents of the survey found the NFL six times less compassionate when compared to the MLB or MLS.
“The key finding for us is that transparency is the cost of doing business now for most organizations, especially among millennials, and that’s where the problem lies,” Sehdev said. “Eventually, as trust erodes, it will impact the bottom line and you have to be concerned about whether the NFL will lose relevancy to up-and-coming sports like soccer.”
All is all, 54 percent of survey respondents overall and 67 percent of millennials said they don’t trust NFL players, 74 percent overall (78 percent of millennials) believe players take illegal steroids to improve their performance, 54 percent believe the NFL is anti-gay and 54 percent don’t believe the league’s image on matters of sexual orientation, despite Michael Sam being drafted.
These are some very alarming results. Clearly the NFL has lost some of the public respect, which could turn to lost customers. Sehdev added that his research has shown that NFL trust has slipped to a point where the league is now comparable to brands such as Malaysia Airlines and Wal-Mart – two of the least trusted brands in the world at this point.
Clearly, the NFL has a major problem on their hands. The consensus from within the NFL is that the brand is durable enough to withstand any PR disaster, including this most recent one with Hernandez. Although this assumption may be correct, it cannot withstand a continuous stream of bad publicity. No brand can.
This is what puts the NFL’s consumer-perception in crisis mode. Over the past two years, we have heard so many bad stories coming out of the NFL that we now assume any off-the-field story from the NFL will become a bad one. It has become a horrendous trend for the NFL’s public relations staff.
Now, the NFL can fix this problem, but it is going to take drastic measures including stricter barriers to entry for players coming out of college. Considering this would lower the talent pool for the NFL, these are likely measures the NFL is not willing to take.
But hopefully they don’t wait until it is too late.