As a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan, the Brett Favre un-retirement drama had sucked myself and most everyone I know into a multi-week discussion on the proper course of action. What I found the most surprising was the diversity of opinion, emotions involved, and the depth of the issues that it brought up. They range from branding to the moral obligations of organization to their employees and customers. Here are the highlights.
Question 1: When someone supports a sports team, are they cheering the players or the uniform?
A sports team is a brand just like Chevy, Budweiser and Coca-Cola. Most of advertising is aimed at creating positive associations between the brand and other desirable people, events and emotions. People who buy into a brand identity are not as concerned about the particular qualities of the product; they are more concerned about being identified with the brand. From a branding perspective, the uniform is more important than the player. Packer fans in the branding sense are perfectly willing to see Favre go if they concur with management that this is what is best for the team. They were angry with him when he waffled on retirement. They were sick of management ignoring the defense in order to draft more offense for his enjoyment.
The other perspective is that a team is a collection of individual players. These fans have player allegiances and are willing to switch team loyalties as needed in order to give them the best football watching experience. What we have discovered in Wisconsin is that there were a whole lot of Brett Favre fans that are becoming NY Jets fans. My wife is one of these Favre fans and she is gathering all her non-Favre Packer gear for a bonfire this fall. I have also been informed that New York is a preferred vacation destination this fall.
Question 2: What are the moral obligations between fans, management, and players?
One of the most common complaints against the Packers management was that they owed it to Brett to give him a satisfactory outcome on the basis of their past relationship. Favre was appealing to this principal when he offered to come back to the team as a first option, but only wished to be released if he was not welcome in his former role. Management refused to accept that they owed Brett anything when they offered to have him return as a backup quarterback. They compounded the problem when they offered up a $20 million personal services contract as a way to keep him retired which was exactly what he did not want. This violation of a perceived implicit moral in management’s treatment of Favre was the main reason for the outrage on the part of the Favre fans.
Like the CEO of a company that is only responsible to shareholders, in managements view, they are only responsible for putting the best possible team on the field and that winning builds brands. In their judgment, by moving forward without Favre while keeping him retired (or at least out of the NFC North) was exactly what they were hired to do. What they did not count on was that many Packer fans were actually Favre fans and would actually prefer to lose with Favre on the team than to win with a Favre-less team. Management may have done tremendous damage to the Packers brand in the name of improving the brand with a team with better long-run prospects.
In my opinion, the Packers had only two choices to get through this without damaging the team. They needed to decide early on if they could live with Brett playing for another team. If they could, they would have avoided a lot of damage by giving him his release early on. They could have requested but not demanded that he not go to a division rival and not insisted upon maximum compensation in draft picks. This would have satisfied many of those who thought he was treated poorly. If Favre was offered a generous exit and still chose the Vikings or Bears, many Packers fans would have seen this as a betrayal and the only the Favre brand would be damaged.
The only other choice would have been to realize that the Packer fans are the customer and the customer is always right. In recent memory, Brett Favre was the Packers. We are in love with this guy and as much as it hurts every time he wants to leave we know that, consequence be damned, we would always take him back. For my part, I am going to attempt to have it both ways and try to see it as not losing a favorite son, but gaining an AFC team to follow. Go Pack Go Jets!