PHOENIX (Reuters) - From domestic violence to deflated footballs, scandal and controversy have hung over the National Football League this season but no matter how dark the clouds it never rains on the Super Bowl parade.
North America’s most popular sport has seen as many hits off the field as on it during a turbulent 2014-15 campaign but marches on toward next Sunday’s highly anticipated championship game between the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots.
Alleged skullduggery surrounding the Patriots use of deflated footballs in a blowout of the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC title game has been an unwanted distraction during the run in to Super Bowl week but the hotel rooms are full and private jets pack Phoenix area airports, unloading their cargo of A-listers and high-rollers ready for a week of VIP partying.
“The fact is Americans just love football,” George Belch, marketing professor at San Diego State University told Reuters. “They hit these speed bumps, things happen but the public just can’t seem to get enough of it.
“It is kind of surprising in a way because you would think with the domestic violence concerns, the concussions, the violence in general in the game .... in some way it just keeps on going.”
The NFL seeks to guards its integrity as zealously as offensive linemen protect their quarterbacks but the league and Commissioner Roger Goodell have taken more than a few jarring sacks.
For much of the season the NFL lurched from crisis to crisis.
Images of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching and dragging then-fiancee Janay Rice out of an elevator were graphic and alarming, forging a disturbing link between the NFL and domestic violence.
Problems piled on each day as reports surfaced of more players being investigated or charged for assaulting girlfriends and wives while NFL officials were grilled on why others already convicted of domestic violence were allowed to play.
By the time Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, the 2012 NFL most valuable player and one of the league’s most marketable names, was charged with beating his 4-year-old son with a tree branch, the NFL was in full damage control.
Goodell came under direct fire for fumbling the domestic violence issue and was left scrambling to explain the league’s tepid initial response.
But the NFL has weathered potentially damaging storms before without being blown off course, including ‘Bountygate’ a pay for pain scheme the league accused the New Orleans Saints of using between 2009 and 2011 to provide incentive to injure opposing players.
As outrage grew over domestic violence, a contrite Goodell admitted mistakes, rolling out a line of new programs and initiatives to defuse the uproar.
“Roger Goodell has skillfully and adroitly managed his way through what could have been a debilitating PR crisis by being very aggressive in the last two months with a pro-active domestic abuse policy,” Rick Horrow, sports lecturer at Harvard Law School, told Reuters. “It is a remarkable product that just keeps getting better, and the notion that the NFL constantly monitors, manages, protects and nurtures its brand is important in the growth of football in general and NFL specifically.”
There are certainly few signs of any trouble inside the NFL.
Sponsors are lined up, prepared to shell out $4.5 million for a 30-second Super Bowl commercial.
Tickets to the Feb. 1 game in Glendale, Arizona are, as always, almost impossible to find and out of reach of the average fan with resale site StubHub putting the average asking price at over $3,000.
Already the most watched television program in U.S. history, a mouthwatering matchup between the defending champion Seahawks and the ‘Deflategate’ tainted Patriots could smash the record audience of 111.5 million set at last’s year’s title game.
“All the negative stories that have come out this year with domestic violence issues, concussion issues and now ‘Deflategate’, I think these are more media issues than they are public concern issues (with the NFL),” Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and now a media consultant, told Reuters. “There’s been no impact on ratings, no impact on attendance, no impact truly on sponsors buying into the games.
“Football appeals more to the ‘frontier American ethic’, the push west, carry a six-gun, settle your arguments with fists. The violence of football far transcends any other sport.
“The American public has totally embraced football.”
Additional reporting by Larry fine in New York, Editing by Gene Cherry