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'Deflate-Gate' Report: Good For Ticket Sales, But Key Moment For Patriots Brand04:46
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New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady gestures during an event at Salem State University Thursday. (Charles Krupa/AP, Pool)MoreCloseclosemore
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady gestures during an event at Salem State University Thursday. (Charles Krupa/AP, Pool)

Here we are in May, in the middle of the NBA playoffs and the NHL playoffs. And what is everyone on sports radio and TV talking about? An NFL team that’s not even playing right now.

"I mean, the Patriots are the team that people love to love and the team that people love to hate," said Susan Fournier, a branding professor at Boston University Questrom School of Business. One of those fans is her father, and she says "he's so upset by this."

"‘They’re going after my team again!’" she said her father told her amid the fallout from the NFL report that suggests the Patriots violated rules by deflating footballs last season.

That sense of siege, she said, can be good for a brand.

"The feeling under attack does tend to have a strengthening effect," she said.

Right now, the New England Patriots are big business. Forbes estimates the value of the franchise at $2.6 billion.

"The Patriots are the team that people love to love and the team that people love to hate."

Boston University professor Susan Fournier

Andy Aylesworth, a marketing professor at Bentley University, says "Deflate-Gate" won’t hurt ticket sales at Gillette Stadium. And he says it won’t hurt sales for Patriots road games, either.

"If anything, people will be more interested in going to the stadium and yelling 'cheater' at Tom and the rest of the Patriots," he said.

But just because it’s more probable than not that TV ratings will go up and more tickets will be sold, does not mean that the Patriots brand is on its way up, too.

Fans take photographs as a helicopter carrying Brady takes off from an athletic field after his speaking engagement at Salem State University on Thursday. (Charles Krupa/AP)
Fans take photographs as a helicopter carrying Brady takes off from an athletic field after his speaking engagement at Salem State University on Thursday. (Charles Krupa/AP)

"‘Oh, I’m no longer a Patriots fan.’ I’ve not heard one person say that," Aylesworth said. "But a little bit of disappointment. ‘Oh, Tom Brady, how could you do this to us? You kind of let me down a little bit.’ "

That’s the risk to both Brady’s brand and the Patriots’ brand, says Fournier. Her research focuses on brands as relationships. Some people relate to products as their best friends, for instance. If you like Cheetos, maybe that’s your secret affair. Fournier says for Pats fans, their relationship to the team is more like a marriage.

"It’s this long-term commitment, high passion," she explained, "'But I’m there for you. You’re there for me. We’re in it for the long haul, the ups and the downs, right?' "

Thinking of the Pats fan relationship as a marriage, she says, gives you another way to think about the report that concluded team staffers tampered with footballs and that star quarterback Brady knew.

"It qualifies as betrayal," she said. "'You’re not the guy I thought you were. You’ve broken my trust. You’ve lied. You’ve cheated!' I mean, it’s literally the whole package here."

You won’t even give me your phone so I can see who you’ve been texting.

"‘Oh, I’m no longer a Patriots fan.’ I’ve not heard one person say that. But a little bit of disappointment. ‘Oh, Tom Brady, how could you do this to us?'"

Andy Aylesworth, a marketing professor at Bentley University

Fournier recently published an article on "divorcing brands" — the business term is “disadoption.” The paper says it usually doesn’t happen over one thing, it’s more like: many little things over time. The good news for the Patriots is that there’s room to doubt the NFL report.

"No one wants to get divorced, right?" she said, laughing. "Specifically, I think even in this context. I mean, you divorce the Patriots, you live in Boston, what are you going to do?"

Fournier says the door is open for the Patriots, but she’s surprised the franchise has not given Tom Brady more support in the last day or two.

She says the marriage is in a rocky spot, and the team should get to work giving fans more reason to renew their vows.

This segment aired on May 8, 2015.

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Curt Nickisch Twitter Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.

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