The NFL's Big PR Gamble

Tonight, the most popular sport in America introduced its schedule for 2011. Fans across the country went online and even turned on ESPN and the NFL Network for in-depth analysis of games that aren’t even scheduled for 5 more months. Excitement for the 2011 season has begun to percolate. But there’s one big problem – there might not be a 2011 season.

Judging by tonight’s schedule announcement fanfare, it’s almost easy to forget that there’s no collective bargaining agreement between the league’s players and owners.

There’s no deal in sight. So, tonight’s announcement represents a risky PR move. That’s because instead of just looking forward to a season, fans can now look forward to specific games. By placing them on the calendar, with dates, times and TV broadcasts, the NFL has made the 2011 “real” in the minds of its customers.

One of the fundamentals to managing potentially adverse communications situations is managing expectations. The NFL has now created an expectation among fans that particular games will be played. That ups the PR stakes. Now, more than even yesterday, it is imperative that a deal be reached before the start of the season. The league must do whatever it takes to reach an agreement or face the biggest sports PR disaster since the Major League Baseball strike, nearly 17 years ago.