NFL sponsor on losing side of headphone fracas

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San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, in an ad for Beats by Dre.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, in an ad for Beats by Dre.

Headphone-maker Bose has a straightforward sponsorship deal with the NFL that has been totally upended by players wearing rival Beats by Dre headphones

The controversy involving the NFL and Beats by Dre headphones shows just how complicated advertising can be in the digital age.

The NFL recently banned players from wearing Beats headphones during games, but the players don’t seem to care. And the threat of $10,000 fines isn't going to change anything, either.

There’s a lot going on here. First of all, the NFL has an exclusive agreement with rival headphone-maker Bose, so it makes sense that the league is sensitive about its players wearing the competition’s headphone during telecasts. In the past, this would have been easy to deal with, but in an age when an NFL superstar is a brand unto himself, the league may have its hands tied. 

Also, the fines are negligible compared with the endorsement cash players get from Beats (which was acquired by Apple in May for $3 billion). This makes it possible for players to profit by wearing them even if they have to shell out $10,000 each week to the league. There is also the possibility that Beats is paying the fines for the players, which is likely not something the NFL can do anything about. 

"We'll let that be unanswered," San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, told a group of reporters when asked if Beats would cover any fines the NFL levied on him. (Never mind that Kaepernick starred in a Beats ad campaign late last year.) 

The bigger problem is that the NFL and Bose are going to come off looking like bad guys if the league follows through with the fines, making Beats by Dre the anti-establishment choice. This will only increase Beats’ "it" factor among consumers willing to pay more than $100 for headphones, a demographic it already dominates.

The brand used a similar tactic a couple of years ago when it gave Olympics athletes Beats headphones, enabling it to briefly circumvent the notoriously strict sponsorship guidelines for the London 2012 Games. 

A confluence of events, including the many scandals the NFL is currently dealing with, have allowed Beats to benefit from the ban. On Sunday, the company made sure to post pics of NFL stars wearing their headphones despite the ban. It was an incredible advertising opportunity that didn’t cost Beats a penny. 

The real loser in all of this is Bose, even though the company has done nothing wrong. One of its chief rivals is essentially reaping the benefits of its advertising dollars. 

NFL coaches continue to wear Bose headphones, but it’s getting pretty tough to find a star quarterback who isn’t wearing Beats by Dre. In effect, Beats has gamed the system to build its brand even more. 

Even if the NFL eventually convinces its players to stop wearing the headphones, there’s no undoing the exposure Beats by Dre received due to the ban. Meanwhile, Bose continues to foot the bill. 

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