NFL, Super Bowl and rebranding for sustainability

By: Kenneth Cortsen
Ph.d. Ass. professor and researcher in sports management at the University of Applied Sciences UCN

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Super Bowl LVI will be played on Sunday 13 February at 3.30pm local time at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. This sporting mega-event marks almost a national holiday and underlines what it means when a sports brand unfolds as a cultural icon with enormous commercial power manifested in various demand determinants.

However, the position of cultural icon should not be taken for granted by the NFL. Like other market leaders in business, the NFL is forced to continually evaluate market dynamics that over time can have a decisive impact on brand strength and thus market relevance.

Super Bowl - the biggest single sporting event

Andy Dallin is co-founder and managing director of the sports consultancy ADC Partners in the US and has worked in or with the US professional sports leagues for several decades. He sees the Super Bowl as the single biggest sporting event on American soil without comparison.

Dallin stresses that:

"The Super Bowl is much more than a sporting event [...] and although the approximately 4-hour game involves American football, Super Bowl Sunday is now an unofficial national holiday; a large percentage of the population watches the Super Bowl, although they are not necessarily (ed. American) football fans or for that matter sports fans [...] It is a cultural event."

Professor Douglas B. Holt of Harvard Business School describes the movement from brand to cultural icon as being characterised by a very loyal following or fan base, which gives the brand in question the strength to maintain a good position in the market over many years; this, of course, based on a completely different recipe from conventional marketing.

The competitive advantage should not be seen as rooted in good service or specific functional advantages, as in traditional strategic terms. Rather, it is in the ability to create a deep cultural connection and the shared excitement or empathy that exists therein (Holt, 2003).

It's often about lifestyle. In the sports industry, it can be seen as the relevance a sport has generated over time. For example, expressed through storytelling (the power of a good story is that people can relate to it).

Storytelling is, firstly, captivating (for example, the sporting performance). Secondly, dramatic (the physical dimension of the game or the uncertainty of the outcome). Thirdly, it is shaped by the myths (who are the athletes, what are their motivations, and the game between heroes and villains?) that are the subject of countless discussions of the game or event at school, at work or at home around the dinner table.

The stage is set for sport as a cultural product and an entertainment phenomenon - although the brand dynamics can be complex.

NFL in battle against question marks and research

All has not been well for the NFL over time, although the Super Bowl has been a substantial driver via the socio-cultural and socio-economic evolution related to the event's evolution over time.

Thus, the NFL has also struggled with question marks as well as research (Omalu, DeKosky, Minster, Kamboh, Hamilton & Wecht, 2005; Omalu, Hamilton, Kamboh, DeKosky & Bailes, 2014) regarding the health challenges of sports as well as issues related to domestic violence, the Colin Kaepernick case and the fight for social justice and most recently the demand for rebranding by the Washington Redskins.

The Hollywood film Concussion is based on the above research and highlights how the NFL almost went to war with the main man behind the research, Bennet Omalu. The NFL wanted him to retract the research that presented a health risk of American football.

The scene in the film illustrates the contrast between knowing and being informed by research, on the one hand, and the commercial and economic interests that can be attributed to the NFL's market power, on the other.

Andy Dallin sees the commercial development of the NFL and the Super Bowl as an important reason for the league's status. As Dallin puts it, it all has to be put in context, and he stresses that

"the commercial nature of scheduling the event on a Sunday may be a bit mundane, but nevertheless observers should consider the following:

  1. The fight is the most watched TV event in the US (by a huge margin over the remaining TV events) year after year. Nothing comes close. On average, the event is marked by double-ups compared to other programs. 
  2. Super Bowl 2022 requires an even higher price for advertising than in the past (up to $7 million for a 30-second commercial). 
  3. The NFL's (ed. commercial) partners (some of whom also show commercials on TV during the game) are spending massively to cash in on the association with the league and in particular with the Super Bowl. See, for example, Pepsi's month-long campaign aimed at promoting their halftime show (with high frequency, by the way). 
  4. The TV commercials are often more talked about (and watched by fans) than the match itself."

So nothing comes close to the Super Bowl as a one-day event in the US market.

We also see that the trend of 'Super Bowl Parties' over the years has spread to Denmark and other international markets. Most recently, and ironically with the conservative and regulated approach to betting in the US over many years, the spending figures show a new tradition: consumers are spending huge amounts of money betting on the outcome of the Super Bowl.

Sports Illustrated magazine reported in early February 2022 that the American Gaming Association concluded that as many as 31 million Americans are expected to bet on Sunday's game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams. That marks a 35 percent increase over last year.

At the same time, spending is expected to reach $7.6 billion, up 78 percent from the previous year.

The commercialization train for the Super Bowl still has tremendous momentum. Add to that the consumption of beverages, food and other goods related to the Super Bowl (see here for further inspiration) and the capitalization power of the NFL and Super Bowl. As Andy Dallin puts it:

"There is nothing in America that comes close to the attention that the Super Bowl generates."

The film Concussion also highlights how the city of Pittsburgh spent $233 million to build a new stadium for the NFL team Pittsburgh Steelers, while at the same time closing schools and raising taxes. Yes, American football is a central cultural phenomenon in the United States.

The scene in the film also illustrates that the NFL is not out to change the world. Basically, the NFL owns one day a week, as the title of another film, Any Given Sunday, so rhetorically expresses, just as many millions of fans are very passionate about the sport.

Omalu was suddenly a threat to the NFL, which incidentally is a situation that can draw parallels to Colin Kaepernick. But a good cause in hand, he went to bat for social justice, but was sacrificed for being bad for the NFL business.

Market power without foresight

The single-entitybusiness structureand thus the centralized sports economic structure (Cortsen, Hehr & Nielsen, 2021) of the NFL has thus acted as a catalyst for how the NFL's market power has spoken its own language without intelligent foresight.

The latter points to the fact that a sports brand - nor a cultural icon like the NFL - misses the dynamic interaction that exists between brand and marketplace.

Most recently, we've seen that rising stakeholder demands have made it clear that an NFL-associated brand like the Washington Redskins is not static.

The team has recently been rebranded as the Washington Commanders as an example that the social sustainability trend has seriously hit the sports industry. And even a professional sports league, which for many years is associated with being 'the major sports league' in the US.

The NFL's single-entity and centralized ownership structure, as mentioned, cost Colin Kaepernick his NFL career as a result of the star's fight for social justice. A fight that at the time was not in line with the league's business interests. From my perspective at the time, it seemed like an ill-conceived and short-sighted strategic handling of the matter on the part of the NFL.

Kaepernick later came out positively on the other side as a winner in the case based on the People's Court as well as the face of Nike in major advertising campaigns. And not least as the person who was heavily instrumental in changing more than the state of American football.

He also managed to make an impact on other sports - including NBA basketball (NBA, 2020) - where club owners supported players' fight for social justice in a very different way. But he also left his mark on the debate in the wider community.

Since then, we have seen that the NFL, exemplified by the rebranding of the team in Washington, has come around and like other brands (sports being no exception) cannot afford to act in direct contrast to the sustainability and CSR trends that pervade the surrounding society.

What determines the strength of a sports brand?

As indicated above, the time when sports branding was primarily based on 'one-way communication' from brand to consumers is long gone. Even the traditional 'two-way communication' that is more fluid between brand and consumers has long been replaced by the communicative high-speed train that the coupling between commercialisation and digitalisation has created as a more multidimensional and interactive information pathway between brand and consumers.

Yes, with this in mind, there is no doubt that consumers more than ever determine the strength of a sports brand.

The context for managing and controlling brand development has thus also changed significantly in sports branding. This places new demands (and competencies) on the commercialisation process within the sports economy, where even the strongest sports brands like the NFL are pressured by 'less time on the ball'. Sports brands must therefore understand and execute on increasing stakeholder demands to make smart, sustainable and market-relevant decisions in a shorter timeframe and in a sports market where market evolution, whether rooted in sustainability trends, technology and data evolution or other innovation, is more dynamic than ever.

This is also due, particularly in professional sport, to the strategic approach of the sports industry, which is often centred on 'the ability to compete'. Competitiveness speaks to the desire to win consumer favour - through performance both on and off the pitch.

Washington Redkins fell for the rebranding call

A recent example of this trend is the rebranding of the NFL team in Washington from the racially inappropriate Redskins to the Commanders. This comes at a time when the surrounding community, both in the US and in Denmark, has seen similar rebranding cases.

Giant Blackcurrant and Blackcurrant Stick has replaced 'Giant Eskimo' for ice cream producers in Denmark. The well-known Marie Biscuits with chocolate, which were branded under Sorte Marie, have also disappeared.

In the US, there have been similar examples of rebranding: the food brand Uncle Ben's because of racist and stereotypical undertones, just as the Cleveland Indians of Major League Baseball as well as various sports teams at college level have been forced to rebrand name-wise or in relation to, for example, their mascot.

The trend of the time is thus leaving a living imprint on the branding landscape. The question is, what will happen to professional sports teams like the Chicago Blackhawks of the NHL or the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL?

Andy Dallin has both advised professional teams on branding and worked on moving US teams from one city to another - and thus rebranding.

He believes that "rebranding and finding a name for a new team typically takes many factors into consideration, including, but not necessarily limited to :

  1. Geography - what is unique and/or relevant to the location or region? For example, consider the Portland Timbers from MLS. The name paints a picture of the forestry work that exists in or around Oregon. Or the Phoenix Suns which reflects (no pun necessary) the 300+ days of sunshine a year.
  2. Characteristics of the sport. American football is often perceived as a battle with the effort required to move down the field and take on new territory.
  3. The history of the club or team. When MLS launched the Seattle Sounders in 2007, it was seen as a turning point for the league. Many names were in play, but the Sounders emerged as a clear favourite; the Sounders were Seattle's team back in the defunct NASL league of the 1970s.
  4. The passion that fans often express.
  5. The cultural relevance and timeliness. Consider, for example, the NBA's Toronto Raptors, launched in 1995 shortly after the massive worldwide success of the movie Jurassic Park."

Rebranding, like branding, is a complex affair filled with diverse associations. However, the process has also been anything but straightforward for the new Washington Commanders and, like any other professional sports team, must lead the rebranding process amidst ever-present pressure from stakeholders such as traditional mass media, commercial partners and, not least, fans who, particularly via social media platforms, have stronger and more direct access to voice their opinions.

President Biden, however, supported the initiative along with the majority of other fans with a moody tweet associated with his dog. And I wonder if the "recognition is the first step to a new reality" thesis also underscores the need for neither successful branding nor rebranding to happen overnight? Just as winning over time can also quickly make critics forget the new name (and last season's lack of success is not forgotten in Washington).

In this way, sport is a very irrational and emotional context. It is also seen via protests when European football clubs have toyed with the idea of changing their name or logo. And even if Washington Commanders has been far from an A+ grade according to the American scale and qualified via the discourse on social media and the associations that Commanders generates, the pressure has certainly been so great that a rebranding was considered the right decision.

Andy Dallin highlights the complexity of rebranding in the sports industry, but also mentions that:

"Rebranding is a matter of the sports organisation going through the due effort to satisfy existing fans, for example, also ideally being able to engage a new fan base, while working to create good associations and managing to mend fences with the previous name."

As for the team in Washington, Dallin also sees it as important for the team to change "the perceptions that have created a toxic culture [...] It's not an easy task, and there have been a lot of internal battles. Ultimately, though, they've bet on a safe direction with the Commanders in that they've kept the existing colors as a way to maintain some important emotional capital from the existing fan base, and at the same time they've chosen a name that is generally not as offensive or at least marks a change in direction from the previous name. Finally, the name incorporates some of the characteristics of American football which also characterise the identity of the sport. So in that sense, it hasn't been a 'wow' choice, but a relatively safe choice, and that's certainly significant given the attention the team has received for many mistakes over the past 20 years."

However, the rebranding was not a quick decision either. A 2016 survey (Woodrow Cox, Clement & Vargas) conducted by the Washington Post concluded that 9/10 of the survey's 504 Native American respondents did not feel bothered by the name Washington Redskins, which is why the team's rebranding has only taken place recently, despite researchers and journalists questioning the survey's validity.

In contrast, a 2020 study (Fryberg, Eason, Brady, Jessop & Lopez) based on research at UC Berkeley concluded that over half of the 1,000 Native American respondents in the survey felt stepped on by the name. This may indicate that the ownership and leadership of the Washington Redskins has latched onto the former study, which with a critical pen resembles reverse research or commissioned work that, at least according to the UC Berkeley study, questions why advocacy organizations behind Native Americans highlight that mascots, merchandise or team names in professional sports can be highly stereotypical and negatively marginalizing, while sports teams (at least until very recently) have held to the contrary.

The same can be said, incidentally, of the case of Colin Kaepernick, who went to bat for social justice but lost his career as a quarterback in the league at a time when the ownership, leadership and branding of the NFL was not where it has, after all, moved to today.   

The process of guiding the brand process through different levels of identity, balancing the communicated brand identity with the brand identity perceived by stakeholders, will be interesting to follow.

How the organisation manages to articulate and integrate the key cultural characteristics of the team, its history and achievements over time in the battle for a better future cannot be ignored.

If recognition is the first step to a new reality, the transformational element around all actions should lead to a new and BETTER reality - on top of a process where many fans have been asked in advance and where former legends have been an active part of the rebranding process.

These stakeholders are of course important assets in the short term, but it is also about creating a name and a reality that future fans and stakeholders can live with for years to come. 

What is the value of the trends of the time?

The time perspective in particular cannot be ignored. Both research (Fombrun & Shanley, 1990; Cortsen, 2016) and practice show that companies - also in this case professional sports companies - are struggling and operationally highly dependent on positively influencing their commercialisation cycle through working on activities related to image, reputation and branding. 

Therefore, the importance is centered on creating

  1. Positive awareness of the organisation and brand activities
  2. A perception of good quality of the work that the organisation guarantees and launches and thus puts a name to among stakeholders
  3. Positive brand associations
  4. A loyal fan base among the large number of fans with preferences and a high degree of identification with the organisation and a further development of this fan base with an upward arrow.


For the NFL, Super Bowl and Washington Commanders alike, this comes down to the ability to stage and orchestrate the prominent advantages that can be attributed to the organization over its competitors in the market. Here, both the NFL as a whole, and especially the tournament's highlight, the Super Bowl, stand far stronger than the Washington team, which in recent years, on top of the rebranding issue, has struggled with fluctuating athletic performance, an ownership and leadership that has been through the People's Court, and further investigations due to allegations of poor work environment and sexual misconduct.

The latter has made noise on the line in the short term, but the new Washington Commanders can put their faith in the fact that being part of the 'big show' on American soil, which the NFL and Super Bowl all else equal, can make a positive difference over time.

This provides a hybrid sports branding advantage in the long term based on the economic and sociological manifestation of the brand strength of the interacting sports brands (ed. NFL and Super Bowl).

Moreover, the ability to adapt to the environment and thus to the demands of stakeholders should not be underestimated, and a sports brand is also a reflection of the social community feeling that is coming especially from the younger generations towards increased sustainability, so that the community feeling becomes a domino effect that takes more and more fans with it - including those of us in the parent generation or those in the grandparent generation who have a concern for our planet and not least our children's or grandchildren's future.

Last but not least, this message will be reinforced by the fact that the NFL, the league's teams and the Super Bowl are a prominent branding platform with great impact in the media landscape, but also in the 'talk of the town' that sport at this level has always been and will continue to be subject to.

And isn't there an element of sustainability here, when the societal role of sport from grassroots level all the way up to professional level is put under the microscope as a larger ecosystem?

For more inspiration on the Super Bowl, listen to this podcast.


Cortsen, K. (2016). Strategic Sport Branding at the Personal, Product and Organizational Level: Theory and Practice for Improving a Sports Brand's Interactions. Doctoral Dissertation. Aarhus University, Denmark.

Cortsen, K. H., Nielsen, R., & Hehr, M. (2021). SPORTS MANAGEMENT: Management and commercialization in the sports industry. Hans Reitzels Forlag. København.

Fombrun, C., & Shanley, M. (1990). What's in a name? Reputation building and corporate strategy. Academy of management Journal, 33(2), 233-258.

Fryberg, S. A., Eason, A. E., Brady, L. M., Jessop, N., & Lopez, J. J. (2021). Unpacking the Mascot Debate: Native American Identification Predicts Opposition to Native Mascots. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 12(1), 3-13.

Holt, D. B. (2003). What becomes an icon most. Harvard business review, 81(3), 43-49.

NBA. (2020). NBA, NBPA establish the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition. Published November 20, 2020 and accessed February 10, 2022:

Omalu, B. I., DeKosky, S. T., Minster, R. L., Kamboh, M. I., Hamilton, R. L., & Wecht, C. H. (2005). Chronic traumatic encephalopathy in a National Football League player. Neurosurgery, 57(1), 128-134.

Omalu, B. I., Hamilton, R. L., Kamboh, M. I., DeKosky, S. T., & Bailes, J. (2010). Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in a National Football League Player: Case report and emerging medicolegal practice issues. Journal of forensic nursing, 6(1), 40-46.

Woodrow Cox, J., Clement, S. & Vargas, T. (2016). New poll finds 9 in 10 Native Americans aren't offended by Redskins name. Published May 19, 2016 and accessed February 8, 2022:

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