Sports are meant to be an escape from the stresses and conflicts of everyday life, but as major incidents occur in the sport industry we see an increase in brand damage that can significantly impact the industry and its’ various organizations. In an episode of SCI TV, Joshua Gordon of the Sports Conflict Institute and Duncan Fletcher of Game Change (gamechange.ca) discuss some of the implications around issues that arise in sports and where so many sports organizations seemingly drop the ball.

Power of Sports Brands

Sport branding has rapidly grown into a multi-billion dollar industry with the goal of developing relationships between fans and various products and services. However, the stakes are so high that when an incident occurs there are repercussions that can lead to significant brand damage and can cast a negative shadow turning away fans and potential sponsors and business partners.

“Sports brands are spontaneous in a way that few other entertainment industries are, it captures the imagination of folks that can relate to it because they have played these sports and followed them closely,” Gordon said. “And the stakes are high because all of this is operating in the public realm.” 

Any publicity is good publicity?

In some cases organizations and athletes welcome any publicity. However, major scandals and unlawful acts can be more damaging than helpful to the brand image of the organization or athlete regardless of the increased publicity. The cases of Lance Armstrong, the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, and FIFA corruption “are perfect examples in terms of that negative impact that can be brought upon an organization,” said Fletcher.

As sponsorships and endorsements deals skyrocket, there is growing concern about how a scandal can impact everything from ticket and merchandise sales to the support for organizations and their sponsors. 

“There is no tolerance for any bad behavior,” Gordon said.

Fletcher follows up by explaining that one of the greatest challenges leading to brand damage is that “even a hiccup, at a very low rate, has a massive impact not only for the individual athlete but the organization or the entity that they work for. That is one of the most frustrating things, in that its very difficult to reach athletes and have them understand that you may hiccup at a very small level, but how that gets magnified is often beyond the issue itself.”

The costs of scandals and controversies can negatively impact all parties involved — administrators, coaches, athletes and supporters — in a four main ways including brand damage, burning actually dollars, loss of viewership and the teams’ performance. 

Threats to Sports Industry

Athlete conduct and PED use are considered the biggest threats to the industry. Industry executives are viewed athlete conduct as an even bigger problem.

“Sports are a diversion from the many difficult things we have in our daily life, we are looking for something to take us away from that and if all it is is a mirror of the very problems in the world itself that defeats the purpose,” said Gordon.

Systemic Solutions?

“The key is you have to go through the process of driving change and addressing the culture,” Fletcher said.

The best possible way to drive change and prevent significant brand damage is to act using the following solutions:

  • Shift paradigm from investigation to assessment
  • Proactive vs. reactive
  • Align interests between sponsors, leagues, teams, athletes, agents, and others
  • Understand what data is missing / needed for better understanding of drivers
  • Conduct structural / organizational assessment of selectionn and development process
  • Examine CBAs in professional leagues

In conclusion, though there is no cookie cutter solution but it is best to look within your own organization to determine where changes need to be made. 

“What you really have to look towards is what are some of those behavioral triggers, how do we create a safe place for individuals to go when there is an issue, and how do we build the community more broadly around athletes so that the infrastructure is healthy and supportive,” Gordon said. “What you really need to think about doing is looking at what your own organizational cultural triggers and then shape something that deals with the systemic flaws within your organization.”