The New York Jets On Overcoming Adversity During Tough Times

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The NFL as a whole and the New York Jets in particular are going through a bit of a rough patch image-wise this season. The good news for the league, team and related sponsors is that football fans are willing to spend money, but the potentially bad news is that these fans are opinionated and outspoken. That means it’s imperative brands and sponsors realize passionate fans have strong emotions and they can’t abandon ship when times are tough. Instead, they will overcome adversity in tough times if they have good motives, are transparent, and listen to feedback.

Passionate fans are a special breed, whether it’s for comic books, TV shows, or sports. And of the most passionate fans of the latter, New York sports fans may be in a league all of their own.

Perhaps no one knows this better than Seth Rabinowitz, senior vice president of marketing and fan engagement for the New York Jets, who spoke recently during an Advertising Week panel.

According to Rabinowitz, “If you schedule your wedding around [an event] or have a tattoo, it’s a good indication you might be a super fan.”

Super fans are the fans that make their passion a central part of their lives and use it to help identify who they are, he added. It’s a year-long commitment for these fans and so the Jets, in turn, must also make sure they have plenty of events and content in the offseason.

But that’s not all. These fans are known for the intensity of their emotions and, per Rabinowitz, brands must be prepared to handle both the positive and the negative.

“You have to be careful,” Rabinowitz said. “[Fans will scream] about what they don’t like. If you violate their trust, they will let you know.”

The Jets, like many brands, want to reward these most passionate brand advocates.

That means this season, for example, the Jets have introduced Jets Rewards, or what Rabinowitz described as a “frequent attendee program” for season ticket holders. Participants receive an RFID-enabled card they can wear or put in their wallets to receive points for game attendance that can be redeemed for perks like going out on to the field or even flying with the team to away games.

“It was a leap of faith for us,” Rabinowitz said. “It required a significant financial and operational investment.”

Other fan rewards include an inaugural Jets cruise with former and current players to the Bahamas in March.

“A few other teams have done it, so we’re not wildly diving into it,” Rabinowitz said. “We did our due diligence, so we will see. With the really loyal customers, if you’re transparent and fess up and listen to feedback, you’re OK. They give you the benefit of the doubt as long as your motives are good.”

And, coming from a representative for the Jets, that’s saying something. This season in particular, the Jets specifically and the NFL as a whole have tested fan loyalty with big losses and major scandals. So how do brands like these – or their sponsors – recover and/or reassure those super fans?

For one thing, brands must accentuate the positive, Rabinowitz says.

With a losing record through October 5, he says it’s all about focusing on the gametime experience as a whole and “being with friends and family. It’s an escape from existence, troubles, and challenges. We try to remind them of that.”

It also means framing a 1-and-4 record in a positive light.

“I say the season is still young,” Rabinowitz said. “There are ways to address it…years from now, you don’t remember the score, but you do remember the epic tailgate party and being with your dad or grandpa or being on the video board or going down to the sideline.”

And when the going gets tough, brands can’t disengage, Rabinowitz said.

“In the NFL the last few weeks, partners get scared sometimes when [emotion] runs to negative – and sometimes with good reason,” Rabinowitz said, alluding to domestic violence cases from players like Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and Daryl Washington. “But negative emotion doesn’t mean the end of the relationship. Sometimes it’s an even more intense form of engagement. You have to think you can survive some heavy incoming fire around negative [emotion]. If you just disengage, it’s hard to come back.”

So far, some sponsors, like hotel brand Radisson, have disengaged. On September 15, Radisson announced it was pulling its sponsorship of the Minnesota Vikings “while we evaluate the facts and circumstances.”

Most league sponsors, however, have adopted more of a wait-and-see approach, issuing statements reflecting their disapproval. That includes McDonald’s and Visa, as well as Anheuser-Busch, which said, “We are not yet satisfied with the league’s handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code. We have shared our concerns and expectations with the league.”

The NFL has responded in part by naming marketing and advertising executive Dawn Hudson its new chief marketing officer.

Only time will tell whether these moves are enough to prompt change and/or reassure football fans.

In fact, panel moderator Russell Sapienza, entertainment, media and communications advisory partner at PwC, said he thought a great study next year will be one that looks at the brands that stood with the NFL versus those that ran away.

“You have to be ready for it,” Rabinowitz said of fan emotion. “And the intensity runs so hot.”

What else do you think brands can do to reassure fans during troubled times?