It has been a tough year for the NFL. Football is a sport; the NFL is a brand. After years of growing viewership, energetic fan support, spiking television revenue, and multiplying sponsorships, a series of largely self-inflicted mishaps has tarnished the NFL brand. There is the national anthem protest controversy, initiated by Colin Kaepernick and carried on by a handful of other players and teams, stoked by comments from President Trump, and now sort of fading into the background — but leaving many fans feeling somewhat alienated from the game. There is the Ezekiel Elliott suspension, which turned into the Ezekiel Elliot court case (a court ruling yesterday reinstated his six-game suspension). This has somehow morphed into an ugly public feud between Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner. And of course there is the mounting evidence that the regular jarring contact between NFL players causes long-term brain injury, whether or not concussions are sustained. Attendance is down. TV ratings are down. Quarterbacks are dropping like flies. Here’s what passes for good news for the NFL in 2017: Teddy Bridgewater of the Vikings got his leg back (he is back on the active roster as of this week) and Zach Miller of the Bears didn’t lose his (but it was a close call).
Let’s get a little more personal. I have a close friend who is a solid fan of the Denver Broncos. He traveled to a game in Denver last year, he has NFL Sunday Ticket so he can view every game on his gigantic screen, and he hosts an outstanding Super Bowl party every year. Trading news of the day about my Seahawks and his Broncos with him is the highlight of my Sunday. He is the very model of a true blue fan, the kind of guy the NFL prizes. Guess what? This year he has sort of given up. Not because the Broncos are having a tough season. It’s the anthem thing and the idea it is unpatriotic. The magic, it seems, is gone, and he has apparently found other things to do on Sunday afternoon. If a guy like this, a true blue fan, has lost interest, the NFL has a real problem. The brand is tarnished and things are going to get worse, not better, for the foreseeable future. They ought to be fixing their problems. Instead, they are making arguments in the Second Circuit to keep a star player off the field for six weeks.
So what can the LDS Church learn from the troubles the NFL is now facing? Like the NFL, the LDS Church is not just a church, it is a brand. People have an emotional reaction to the LDS Church, love it or hate it. The Church advertises itself like a brand and runs a Newsroom to give helpful information to the press and promote good PR. Like the NFL, the Church has had its troubles of late: The campaign against Prop 8 in California; the November Policy, issued two years ago; the ongoing retrenchment following the Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015. We have high negatives across the board: Political liberals hate us because we’re so socially conservative and religious conservatives hate us because they think we’re not Christian. There has been a substantial increase in the percentage of early-returning missionaries. The number of people exiting the Church, formally or informally, seems to be on the rise. Maybe people are just tired of 3 hours of church on Sunday, plus this or that extra meeting or fireside or conference. Everyone has a shelf these days. It’s just tough to get excited about the Church at the moment. About the only good thing one reads about the Church these days is Helping Hands. Maybe we should pray for more hurricanes.
We could get personal here as well. We all know a friend or family member (maybe several) who were true blue fans of the Church just a year or two ago but who have now just lost interest. The Church’s November Policy and the national anthem protests have had strangely parallel effects, alienating a small but significant minority of fans who were previously quite devoted. Explanations vary and reliable global statistics are tough to come by, but there is certainly a problem here. We still attract converts, but missionaries have a tougher time than ever before finding people to teach, or even people just willing to talk. All is not well in Zion.
The bottom line: If the NFL brand can lose its shine and go into decline, then any brand can, including LDS. Retrenchment is a symptom, not a solution. I’ll throw out some brief and somewhat random thoughts as bullet points below and invite readers to add their own observations. Or to register a contrary opinion along the lines of “the Church has never been stronger.”
- One easy NFL response to the long-term brain injury problem is denial. Denial is also employed in LDS contexts, such as denying that LDS youth suicides could possibly have anything to do with LDS teachings or denying/ignoring the dangerous circumstances that we sometimes put missionaries in.
- Only recently has dissension in the NFL senior leadership (owners and the commissioner) become public. The Church has not yet reached this point. There may be disagreements between senior leaders over recent troubles, but it has not yet gone public. LDS +1
- How loyal is your fan base? NFL fans are quite loyal but not endlessly loyal. One team, the LA Chargers, appears to have almost no fans at the moment after alienating every single fan in San Diego. Mormons, too, are quite loyal but not endlessly loyal, a fact not always appreciated by senior leadership. Loyalty is a two-way street. Blaming members for doubts and defections and aggressively emphasizing covenants suggests leadership thinks it’s a one-way street.
- Competitiveness is part of the NFL product. NFL leadership continually tinkers with rules to keep offense and defense balanced, as well as promoting player safety. They recognize that they need to do things to keep paying customers in the seats. It’s not automatic. Now it’s hard to tell whether LDS leadership sees the religious equivalent of competitiveness (basically keeping the Church program interesting enough that members continue to engage) as a priority. Two-hour block? More interesting curriculum? Hot chocolate and donuts once in a while? This isn’t rocket science, but they need to keep tithe-paying customers in the seats. Just blaming disloyal customers who for some unfathomable reason don’t take their covenants seriously is not an effective strategy.