Getting Banned by the NFL Is Actually Great for Beats

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick warms up prior to a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium in London on Oct. 27, 2013 Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The competition between Bose and Beats cost Colin Kaepernick $10,000 this week, when he violated an NFL ban on wearing Beats by Dr. Dre headphones on television after games. The San Francisco 49ers quarterback, who’s sponsored by Beats Electronics, declined to say whether the headphone maker would pick up the tab. But the public spat is probably worth more than that to the company: It projects exactly the attitude Beats has carefully cultivated.

Bose is the official headphone of the NFL, and image-wise, it couldn’t be more different from Beats. Bose is the sensible, reasonably expensive audio brand of affluent suburban dads. Beats, with Dr. Dre in its C-suite, is marketed to young men who like their rap music loud; it’s tapped athletes such as LeBron James to make the point. That strategy has worked: The market for $100-plus headphones was worth more than $1 billion last year, according to research firm NPD Group, and Beats accounts for 61 percent of that. In market-share terms, Bose, with 22 percent, is actually the underdog—not that you’d know it.

Beats’ mainstream success, combined with the fact that Apple recently paid $3 billion for the company, kind of undermines its image as an edgy upstart. It’s not impossible to be both ubiquitous and hip (see: Nike, Apple) but it’s hard. The NFL’s alignment with Bose sure helps Beats position itself as anti-establishment, in the same way that Tipper Gore did more for 2 Live Crew than Luther Campbell ever could. When a star quarterback would rather pay a $10,000 fine than take his headphones off for a few minutes while talking to reporters, the narrative just gets stronger. Beats spent Sunday and Monday posting all kinds of photos of NFL players wearing headphones as they prepared for games.

The NFL has said the league—not Bose—is the one enforcing the ban on Beats headphones on the field. Apple declined to comment; Beats and Bose didn’t return calls seeking comment.

The Kaepernick flap is one of several fronts simmering in the headphone wars this week. On Friday, Bose agreed to drop a lawsuit against Beats accusing it of violating a patent on its noise-canceling technology. And Apple blog MacRumors.com reported on Friday that the tech giant may remove all Bose headphones and speakers from its stores to encourage sales of more Beats products. If that happens, Bose might want to come up with a way to get Russell Wilson and Clay Matthews kicked out of an Apple Store.

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