Associations and Reality TV: The Lessons of “Friday Night Tykes”
“You have the opportunity to rip their freakin’ head off and let them bleed!” That’s dialogue we expect from an action movie, but it’s not something we expect a grown man to tell a football player who’s less than 10-years-old.
TYFA, the Texas Youth Football and Cheer Association took a gamble this fall when it let the Esquire TV produce a reality show, “Friday Night Tykes.” Specifically, the association let cameras film coaches and teams in the 8- to 9-year-old Rookies Division.
Nearly one out of every 12 NFL players are born in Texas, so it’s hardly a surprise that a youth league exists there where competition is embraced and expected. The way the coaches and parents were portrayed on the show generated considerable criticism. Viewers, columnists, sports commentators and social media weighed in with negative reviews and even the National Athletic Trainers Association issued a statement criticizing Esquire “for providing a platform for the blatant disregard for player safety…”
And the league itself took actions based on activities they saw on the show. Two coaches were suspended and another was fined. They’ve apologized for their actions. CNN found the suspensions worthy of a news segment.
Brian Morgan, president of the San Antonio-based organization, told the hometown Express-News that he understands editing and marketing amplifies the negative aspects of the show. “I understand marketing. I understand how they had to drive interest for a fledgling network, and that's their approach to get people to tune in. I understand they need viewers, and I don't want anything fake. This isn't 'Duck Dynasty.'”
In other words, the league offers few apologies. Morgan told Reuters: "We want a competitive league. It seems competition has become a bad word. The parents are looking for a league that is competitive and pushes their kids." And the Reuters’ columnist followed with “The league sees itself as a distinct contrast to other youth sports leagues where the emphasis is on having everyone play and scores often don't count. These coaches and parents have a disdain for youth programs that give out participation awards and do not breed winners.”
So, was it worth it for TYFA to allow production of the program? Apparently so. The show has been renewed for a second season.
As typically happens in these cases, the controversy has resulted in significant publicity for the show, with coaches and parents appearing on “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America,” and other programs. Esquire aired a season-ending wrap-up program where coaches, parents, the TYFA president, sports psychologists and others that offered an excellent 360-degree perspective on the show, competitive sports and the pros and cons of young children competing in such an environment.
The show raises many important questions about sports, coaching, what should be expected from 8-year-olds and how parents work with their children. This column’s focus, however, is about lessons that associations can take away from the program, which are:
- Executives should not reject ideas due to possible negative repercussions. Officers of TYFA had to know, going in, that the show was going to seek out controversy, conflict and outrageous behavior. In other words, their flaws were going to be exposed. But, they made a judgment that the benefits outweighed the distractions, and likely felt the organization and its people were strong enough to withstand the camera lens.
- Television programs are powerful platforms. TYFA will grow as a result of the program. As many detractors as it had, football programs are lining up to be a part of the organization now. The marketing benefits of the program will bring in more participation and, one surmises, more revenue.
- Transparency can make associations stronger. TYFA took necessary actions as a result of having some of its warts publicly revealed. They’ve suspended and fined coaches and, it’s a reasonable to say that the league will provide coaches much more information on proper conduct, player safety and language. The organization has learned valuable lessons that they likely would not have learned without the probing cameras.
We don’t advocate associations to go out and seek out reality television programs as promotional vehicles, but rather we suggest large-scale opportunities be given sufficient consideration as to their value. If, at the end of the day, the organization can be stronger, can grow and meet its mission, then it’s worth bearing the scrutiny the project will bring.