The hits just keep on coming for the National Football League.
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After a controversy over domestic violence early in the season, the NFL is now facing “Deflategate”—accusations that the New England Patriots took air out of the footballs they used in their 45-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game.
But the latest issue is unlikely to inflict permanent damage on the NFL and the Patriots, even though both parties were slow to respond.
“At the end of the day, does this impact the league’s commercial viability or its relationships with fans? No. I think it’s a blip on the radar,” said Kevin Adler, president and founder of Chicago-based Engage Marketing. “Brand image doesn’t shift seismically over time.”
Adler also stressed the importance of Rich Eisen’s testimony. Eisen, a well-known football commentator who hosts a show on DirecTV (NYSE:DTV) and FOX Sports Radio, couldn’t tell the difference between a legally inflated football and one that was underinflated.
During a press conference Thursday, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said he didn’t notice any difference when the footballs were properly inflated for the second half of the game. He also said, “I didn’t alter the ball in any way.”
“The Patriots have created enough questions about whether this was intentional,” Adler added. “Brady said he couldn’t tell the difference between the two levels. Rich Eisen did that on his show. The Patriots, from a perception management perspective, have done enough to offset hypothetical damage to the brand.”
For every game except the Super Bowl, teams are responsible for providing their own footballs. Each football must be inflated to a pressure of 12.5 psi to 13.5 psi. The officials check the footballs before the game before handing them off to ball boys.
During Sunday’s matchup at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., the officials became aware that New England’s footballs were underinflated. Multiple reports say 11 of 12 footballs fell short of the minimum pressure by two pounds.
The NFL on Friday said it’s conducting an investigation, confirming that game officials inspected the footballs before the game began.
“We take seriously claims that those rules have been violated and will fully investigate this matter without compromise or delay. The investigation is ongoing, will be thorough and objective, and is being pursued expeditiously,” the league said in a statement.
The NFL could levy a fine of up to $25,000, in addition to other disciplinary measures, if it finds a culprit.
The Patriots aren’t strangers to allegations of cheating. In 2007, the Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick were fined after the team was caught videotaping New York Jets coaches who were using hand signals to communicate with players on the field. The team also lost a first-round draft pick.
“Spygate,” as the incident is known, may actually work in New England’s favor this time around. Adler suggested that many fans already view the Patriots in a bad light, so it’s hard to see any further damage to their brand.
“This isn’t brand new news to anybody. Whether they cheated or didn’t cheat, it’s almost immaterial to brand perception,” Adler explained.
The NFL season, which ends with Super Bowl XLIX between the Patriots and Seattle Seahawks on Feb. 1, had its share of controversy this year. According to Adler, the NFL hasn’t reacted quickly enough.
“It doesn’t seem like the league has a well-developed playbook,” he said.