January 28, 2015
The National Football League (NFL) had a bruising 2014 in the media, but “Deflategate” has struck a chord among NFL fans in a way that last year’s barrage of negative coverage about domestic violence and head injuries did not.
Though critical narratives of the NFL grew in 2014, fans remained loyal
Last fall, Monitor 360 used its Narrative Analytics™ process to compare NFL coverage in newspapers versus conversations on over 2,000 blogs and forums, revealing that critical narratives articulated in the media barely registered in discussions among fans.
In the immediate aftermath of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s decision to suspend Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice for beating his then-fiancée (July 25 – September 25, 2014), nearly a third of NFL-related media coverage lambasted the League for its failings. Two core narratives emerged: “Disgracing the Game” about the NFL’s handling of domestic abuse, brain trauma, and criminal misconduct, and “Broken Game” about the violent and dangerous nature of football itself. Together, these critical narratives drove roughly an 80% increase in negative coverage of the NFL overall.
Despite the negative narratives about the NFL reflected in mass media, the conversation among fans on blogs and forums hardly changed at all. The analysis indicated that over 90% of the conversation after the Rice decision remained focused on the game itself, with the “Disgracing the Game” narrative (7%) focused on domestic abuse and the Redskins name controversy rising only a few percentage points. Importantly, fan behavior didn’t budge, with TV ratings and attendance hitting record highs.
“Deflategate” calls into question the “Integrity of the Game”
While players’ conduct off the field barely registered in the football conversation among fans in 2014, the NFL’s problems on the field this January have provoked a different conversation among fans.
Monitor 360’s latest Narrative Analysis™ of NFL coverage indicates that fans have taken the controversy surrounding the use of underinflated footballs in the League’s AFC title game between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts to heart. In the 10-day period following the AFC title game, “Deflategate” has accounted for over 25% of the conversation on fan-driven blogs and forums. In contrast, commentary critical of the sport accounted for only 6% of the conversation in the preceding 10-day period. This may represent the emergence of a new narrative critical of the NFL, in which allegations of cheating call into question the “Integrity of the Game,” especially when it comes to the behavior of the League’s aspiring champions.
Fans’ ire mirrors broader media coverage. In the 10 days prior to the AFC title game in which the Patriots were accused of using underinflated footballs, commentary critical of the NFL accounted for just 11% of the conversation on newspaper op-ed pages. But in the period immediately following the game, the share of newspaper op-eds devoted to criticizing “Deflategate” accounted for nearly 40% of media coverage overall. Though negative media coverage barely registered in the conversation among fans on blogs and forums last year, the media’s narrative questioning the “Integrity of the Game” surrounding “Deflategate”—with its implications for the honor bestowed upon its champions—has clearly struck a chord among the NFL’s fans.
The mounting negative media coverage of the NFL over the last year may not cause a drop in ratings during this weekend’s Superbowl XLIX between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks. But the NFL still has a long way to go to restore its reputation. Unlike the scandals of 2014, when the League appeared impervious to criticism from its fans, “Deflategate” and how it will be handled in the coming days and weeks may be different. Will this be the tipping point that changes fans’ behavior?
For Monitor 360’s earlier Narrative Analysis™ analysis of NFL coverage, visit: NFL Article
About Monitor 360: Through its research and strategic consulting services focused on the analysis of narratives, San Francisco-based Monitor 360 helps clients address complex global strategic and analytical challenges. Narrative Analytics is the next generation of media analysis and a proprietary technique for aggregating and analyzing big data from traditional and social media to decode people’s underlying narratives, map them at scale, and leverage them in strategy and marketing. Monitor 360 has used this narrative-based approach to influence strategies ranging from helping the intelligence community combat Al-Qaeda to helping Fortune 500 companies launch new markets and products.