Why the New NFL Headphone Policy Is Actually a Win for Beats

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 Michael Zagaris / Contributor / Getty Images

This past week Bose Corporation, makers of premium headphones, became part of the national conversation. Every major news outlet carried a story that mentioned the brand. This would seem like a mission accomplished — why else pay an undisclosed, but likely hefty sum to become the NFL’s official headphone sponsor, if not for the attention?

But this may not be the publicity that Bose had in mind.

First, news surfaced that, as part of the NFL’s deal with Bose, players and coaches were no longer allowed to wear headphones from other companies on camera, including during practices and post-game interviews. Then, the league fined San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick $10,000 for flouting the ban, and wearing a set of pink Beats headphones to last Sunday’s game. (Cam Newton and Richard Sherman don’t seem to be worried about Kaepernick’s fine: On Sunday, the Beats-sponsored players still wore their headphones where cameras could see, as did Tom Brady, who wore Beats earbuds even though he isn’t affiliated with the brand.)

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Kaepernick is no innocent bystander — he has an endorsement deal with Beats — and the rule is nothing new; the NFL routinely sweeps aside non-sponsored products. His actions were tactical, and most likely strategic. By boldly wearing a product that he’s already paid to wear, Kaepernick gets to be the Braveheart of sponsored luxury headphone owners, while also drumming up publicity for the brand he’s contractually obligated to like.

For Bose, though, this is a branding nightmare. On a surface level, it’s merely unseemly to be associated with the punishment of players for using a completely optional, non-sports-related piece of consumer electronics. No one wants to side with a bully. But if you buy into the power and process of marketing, the implications of the NFL’s headphone ban make this situation profoundly embarrassing for Bose.

On paper, the NFL is restricting the use of all brands that aren’t Bose. But Beats, in particular, was name-checked as a threat. And when Kaepernick took a stand against the new policy, he did it with Beats on his head. There’s no getting around it — this is a Beats ban. No one is warning players to leave their Shures at home, or their Sonys or Urban Ears or anything else. So the message is as clear as it is unspoken: Beats headphones are already so dominant within the NFL, that only aggressive league-wide rulings and substantial fines can possibly convince players to take even a momentary break from wearing them. Plus, when you ban something, whether it’s a book, a movie, or pricey audio gear, that translates to instant brand awareness and interest. Bose is paying to increase the cache of its competitor.

Bose might be an underdog within the premium headphone market, with an estimated 22 percent market share, compared to 61 percent for Beats, but it’ll survive what’s shaping up to be a botched sponsorship. Also, Bose isn’t a plucky mom-and-shop outfit. It’s a corporation whose flagship products, the QuietComfort series of noise-cancelling headphones, run for around $300. And no one is shedding a tear for poor Kaepernick, or any of the astonishingly well-paid players who might eventually join his cause. 

Neither Bose nor the NFL responded to requests for comment, but there’s little way to spin this situation in a positive light. In fact, the NFL appears to be making a habit of happily taking money from companies, and shining a spotlight on their competitors. Last month, NFL commentators referred to the Microsoft Surface tablets being used by coaches on the field as iPads. A simple mistake, maybe, but consider that Microsoft’s multiple-year partnership with the league clocks in at $400 million. It’s a complex arrangement, too, with elements that include interactive features on the company’s Xbox One console (such as automatic updates for fantasy football teams), as well as the use of Surface tablets for team communication and calling plays.

A written statement sent to us from Microsoft argues that, “What sets this sponsor partnership apart from many others is the way that one of the most powerful leagues and brands in the world is working closely with one of the most innovative technology companies on the planet to drive immediate impact on, and off, the field.” It’s a valid point. While other sponsors might simply pay for exposure to some 20 million weekly viewers, Microsoft is at least trying to come up with novel ways to integrate its products into the actual sport. And yet, even after the initial coverage of their slip-up, on-air commentators went back to calling the Surface — the official tablet of the NFL — an iPad.

Funny thing about Apple, the makers of the iPad: It also owns Beats.