Mike Sofis: Is the Antonio Brown saga the new future of the NFL? | Steel City Underground

Steel City Underground

Steelers receiver Antonio Brown exits the locker room ahead of the game against the New Orleans Saints alone
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The Antonio Brown saga came to a close when the star wideout was traded to the Oakland Raiders. But the growing presence of NFL megastars' social media brands will continue to create high profile power struggles between these superstars and NFL teams. The following data illustrates that the saga just may be the future of the NFL moving forward.

Prior to the Antonio Brown trade, a Twitter poll suggested only ten percent of Steelers fans were happy with accepting a third-round pick or lower value for the star wide receiver.

But a similar Twitter poll also established the day Brown was traded showed that roughly one out of every four Steelers fans believed the Steelers “won” the trade. Not all respondents took both polls, but it seems safe to say that about one out of six Steelers fans felt good about the trade despite the team having received less value than fans originally wished.

Why would a decent chunk of Steelers fans be happy with a lower value than they originally indicated? One likely culprit is that fans were done with the drama. Want some evidence? On the day Brown's trade was announced, it took just roughly two hours (after initially making the following Twitter post) for JuJu Smith-Schuster to receive about 85 thousand likes for posting, “I’m Ready,” in an obvious response to the news of AB’s departure.

At least misery may have company; it’s clear the Steelers bear some of the responsibility for the team's falling out with Antonio Brown, but he is likely patient zero of a growing problem for all NFL teams.

NFL teams will continue to see escalating power struggles with megastar players as their social media fame draws additional money and control. For example, Brown has 3.3 million followers on Instagram compared to the Oakland Raiders’ 1.3 million. Le'Veon Bell has 1.6 million followers compared to the New York Jets’ 613k followers. Odell Beckham Jr. has 12.6 followers, which is roughly fifteen times more than that of the Cleveland Browns. Even Tom Brady has 4.4 million followers to the Patriots 3.7 million. What do all these players have in common? They are good at football, make a lot of money, and have had well-publicized power struggles with their respective teams.

Even Google searches reflect these issues. Historically, the Steelers had many more searches on Google than did AB, but only until January of this year. After that, there were roughly equal Google searches for Brown and the Steelers, despite Brown being just one of 53 Steeler players. As AB’s antics increased, so did searches related to him, followed by even more off the field issues.

Interestingly, the dip in Steelers searches corresponded with more searches for Brown. As more individuals searched for Brown, fewer searched for the Steelers. Shouldn't they go up or down together? It seems likely that the media attention Brown received between early January and March continued to reinforce his misbehavior, and search engine trends until eventually he was traded to the Raiders and given a lucrative new deal to make him the highest paid wide receiver in the NFL.

Data source: Google Trends 

Do you think Brown will be the exception moving forward? If you do, you should ask Jeremy Fowler of ESPN what he thinks. After writing about Odell Beckham Jr. and his use of viral videos and a $90 million contract extension with the New York Giants in August, Brown - a friend of OBJ - was developing his own "subplot" per Fowler.

"Brown, who calls himself an entrepreneur, used the turmoil as a contractual springboard." - Jeremy Fowler

If that was the case, as Fowler reported, it appears Beckham Jr. potentially planted the seed last summer for Brown's plan to acquire a new deal with the Steelers. For Beckham, multiple off the field issues, including being filmed with a woman holding a credit card near a plate with lines of a white substance, did not deter the Giants from an at-the-time historic new contract for OBJ last summer. Of note, Beckham has since made a lateral move to join the Cleveland Browns. That isn't to say that Beckham's move was similar to how Brown handled his new deal, however.

As NFL megastars continue to draw large numbers of followers and develop influential social media brands, the opportunity to wrestle power from their teams may become too great a temptation to individual professional players to overcome over the coming months and years. The use of social media in this fashion only began a few years ago and will only grow moving forward.

Some NFL fans may not consider it a problem if players continue to take power from teams and organizations within the league. That’s a matter of opinion. But for many other NFL teams and their fans who don't like to watch power struggles and diva-like antics, the AB fiasco is not just a Steelers problem but is potentially the new future of the National Football League.





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  1. I’m a Steelers fan. Not an AB fan. Not an LBell fan. Not a Big Ben fan. Not a JuJu fan. A Steelers fan. I love all those players when they have ONE thing in common with my team. When they don’t? I’m done. As soon as the NFL becomes an “individual” players conglomerating to form teams league? I’m out. I’m a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Players come & go. The Steelers are here to stay…

  2. First of all, this was not a struggle between the Steelers and the Raiders, so the premise of the comparison of polls is tainted from the start. This was a struggle between the Steelers and Antonio Brown, and Brown clearly won by a landslide.
    Secondly, this battle between the Steelers and Brown had nothing to do with who had more followers on social media. Brown’s popularity on Instagram didn’t affect his trade value. This was a battle for compensation, and popularity didn’t change anything in that battle.

  3. Mike Sofis says:

    Thanks for the comment Imperial Destroyer. First, I agree with you that it was a battle between Brown and the Steelers, and that was the main point of the second half of the article. But, the relative difference in trade value for Brown and OBJ drives home the point that the Raiders got a very good deal, if we’re looking at on the field performance alone.

    Another point is that Brown’s undesirable behavior between the Bengals game and the trade was likely reinforced by consistent media attention (social and otherwise). But, how did Brown win this battle? Social media. He publicly and consistently criticized Ben, Tomlin, and ownership, which undermined the Steelers’ leverage in trade talks. If he had a small social media following, do you think he could have gained that kind of leverage and essentially forced his own trade (and passed on going to the Bills)?

    And, if you think popularity was irrelevant, consider that the Raiders were the only legitimate trade partner for Brown and many believe part of their interest in signing him–despite his desire for a new deal and his off the field issues–was to help with their poor attendance at home games prior to moving to Vegas (see http://www.espn.com/nfl/attendance).

    Lastly, according to Forbes, Odell Beckham Jr. got a 25 million dollar Nike show deal last year in large part because of his social media presence (https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.forbes.com/sites/chasecrosby/2017/05/25/nike-just-paid-odell-beckham-jr-a-lot-of-money-because-of-you/amp/). That gives the player money and power not controlled by the team. Social media isn’t everything in these situations, but you have to admit it is increasingly relevant in the power struggle between star players and NFL teams.

    Thanks again for your comment and input.

  4. Mike Sofis says:

    Thanks a bunch for your comment Dave. I’m with you. I love the team first mentality. Isn’t that team based approach what makes the Steelers and the NFL so great? How many superbowl teams have tons of me-first players?

    I also found an interesting article the other day saying that the NFL hired social media coordinators in 2017 to help players grow their social media influence (https://www.google.com/amp/amp.awfulannouncing.com/nfl/nfl-hiring-people-monitor-players-social-media.html). I’m curious if those positions still exist. If so, do these coordinators encourage players to engage in positive interactions on social media or do they just try to help then grow their influence?

    Thanks again for your input Dave.

  5. Mike,
    I agree that Brown utilized social media to undermine his trade value. He embarrassed the Steelers with the things he broadcast. But because he was popular and famous due to his on the field performance, he could have just made those same statements to the national media and they would have reported it. The Steelers would have been at least as embarrassed and eager to trade him away. His actual value wasn’t lowered because he received quite a raise in pay and guaranteed money. So yes, I’m sure he could have lowered his trade value without social media. The national media would suffice.

    Raiders fans will pay to watch Brown because he’s a great player, not because he’s a popular train wreck on social media.

    I understand that endorsement contracts can be affected by social media popularity, but that has nothing to do with the negotiations we’re talking about between the Steelers, Brown and the Raiders.

    In the end, I guarantee the Steelers didn’t accept so little in trade because they were concerned that Brown had more followers on Twitter, or was Googled more than they were.

    • Mike Sofis says:

      Thanks for the reply Imperial. I agree that his on the field performance is relevant and I at least briefly noted that in the article. I think social media and the internet can amplify the on the field talent to provide added financial value to teams (especially those with struggling attendance about time move to Vegas).

      I’m confused though that you agree that Brown undermined his trade value using social media but a few sentences later you say it didn’t lower his trade value. But at the end you say that didn’t get good value for him. If you think his use of social media affected his trade value some, but not substantially, then why did the Steelers only get a 3rd and 5th round pick for him?

      I agree that Steelers didn’t trade Brown solely because of his social media or internet presence, but trying to isolate either of those things from the national media is impossible in 2019. I didn’t cite the social media stats and Google trends to argue that they were the sole cause of the low value trade, but that they are at least part of the potential problem.

  6. I do agree that embarrassing your team to get them to dump you from unfavorable contracts may become a trend if teams don’t do something to stop it. I think the Steelers set a bad precedent by allowing Brown to get away with it. They should have forced him to honor his contract, or fined, suspended and sued him for breech of contract. If those options weren’t a reasonable course of action for them, I think the next CBA will contain changes that make this fiasco a thing of the past.

  7. Mike,
    I didn’t say that. I said that he lowered his trade value, but not his actual value. Trade value is what the Steelers were able to receive as compensation for trading him. Actual value is what Brown was able to receive as compensation for playing.

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