New England Patriots
New England Patriots fans show their support for quarterback Tom Brady during the first quarter against the New York Giants at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, Sept. 3, 2015. Reuters/Stew Milne-USA Today Sports

The New England Patriots are locked in as heavy favorites Thursday night in their season-opening clash with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the franchise and its rabid fan base are still entering the 2015 NFL season feeling like underdogs. The Deflategate scandal pitted New England against the corporate juggernaut of the NFL, and some experts expect the Patriots brand to benefit from the David-versus-Goliath fight all season.

The Patriots, despite their recent on-field success and a seemingly endless stream of cheating allegations, suddenly faced long-shot odds this summer. Brady, a multimillionaire with four Super Bowl rings and a supermodel wife, became a symbol of everyman resistance against corporate authority.

When the Patriots’ newest Super Bowl banner is raised to the rafters Thursday night before kickoff, the crowd at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, will undoubtedly be a sea of red and blue jerseys and “Free Brady” T-shirts. The money will be flowing, and football fans around the country, regardless of their stance on Brady’s overturned suspension, will be watching.

“In aggregate, ‘us against the world’ works,” said A.J. Maestas, the president and founder of Navigate, a Chicago-based sports marketing research firm. “It’s to the net benefit of a team on a local basis, and that’s where their revenue comes from.”

Sales of Patriots gear are up 63 percent since Sept. 3, when U.S. District Court Judge Richard Berman overturned Brady’s suspension, according to sports merchandise retailer Fanatics. Brady merchandise received an even larger boost, rising by 180 percent over the same period. The jump occurred even as a damning ESPN report shed new light on the Patriots’ involvement in the 2007 Spygate scandal, and as separate polls found the majority of both fans and players suspected the Patriots were indeed guilty of wrongdoing. With anti-NFL sentiment at an all-time high, evidence suggests fans, more than ever, are rallying to the team’s cause.

“The fans who like the Patriots and support the Patriots are showing more support, more passion, more feeling that their team is being unnecessarily dissed,” said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert and executive creative director at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco. “So I’m going to go out and buy merchandise, I’m going to support Brady by buying Brady T-shirts, being more passionate and even stronger fans for the team.”

Tom Brady Overview | PointAfter

A Murky History

That isn’t to say the Patriots’ combative relationship with the NFL has done any real damage to the league’s brand. Even after the endless negative publicity generated by the NFL’s domestic violence and concussion scandals, revenues are at an all-time high. The league’s 32 teams split more than $7 billion in revenue last year, mostly through lucrative media rights deals. Ratings on networks like Fox and ESPN have never been stronger. Each franchise, including the Patriots, received an equal share of approximately $226 million, the Wall Street Journal reported. League-wide revenue reportedly could surpass $12 billion this season thanks to new sponsorship deals.

In a vacuum, renewed fan support for the Patriots doesn’t make a ton of sense. The franchise has enjoyed a reputation as the NFL’s “Evil Empire” ever since Bill Belichick took over as head coach in 2000. New England has won 12 division titles and four Super Bowls in that time, their success bolstered by tactics opponents often viewed as less than ethical.

In particular, critics have displayed near-paranoia at Belichick’s borderline clairvoyance when it comes to football strategy. This summer, former head coach Tony Dungy said Peyton Manning, who he coached as a member of the Indianapolis Colts, used to leave the visitors' locker room when playing the Patriots out of concern that Belichick had bugged the area. In 2007, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell fined Belichick a then-record $500,000 and stripped the Patriots of a first-round draft pick for spying on an opposing team’s defensive signals, in what became known as Spygate.

So it came as little surprise last January when Goodell ordered a thorough investigation into allegations the Patriots knowingly deflated footballs during last season’s AFC Championship game to gain an edge over the Indianapolis Colts. Investigator Ted Wells subsequently found Brady was “at least generally aware” of the wrongdoing, and the league office suspended the quarterback for four games.

Humanizing Tom Brady

Goodell became personally invested in the case, naming himself arbitrator over Brady’s initial appeal, despite the players union’s objections, and upholding the four-game suspension. That, critics say, is where Goodell lost the high ground in what became a protracted public relations battle with Brady and the Patriots.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a powerful figure in NFL circles and former Goodell supporter, publicly ripped the commissioner’s handling of the case. He apologized to fans, stating he was “wrong to put [his] faith in the league.” Throughout the process, Brady vehemently denied any wrongdoing. It never sat well with fans that Goodell would spend millions of dollars and punish the Patriots so severely over a dispute about air pressure in a few footballs.

“It humanizes Tom Brady, in a way,” said Robert Boland, a former NFL agent and sports administration professor at Ohio University. “It’s hard for a multimillionaire married to a supermodel to be humanized or made more likable. He’s certainly been an outstanding quarterback for a long time, but in this moment, he’s also now the guy who stood up to the commissioner.”

The Patriots were already valued at $2.6 billion before Brady’s successful Deflategate appeal, according to Forbes. And they’re the reigning Super Bowl champions.

New England has never had a problem attracting top-notch free agents, but the perception that Kraft is willing to defend his players at all costs could make Belichick’s job that much easier. The team’s current players may be willing to take a hometown discount out of loyalty, and free agents may have yet another reason to consider signing with the Patriots.

“I do think for players in the league, there is some resonance that Robert Kraft backed his player against the commissioner. I don’t know how far that can be felt or monetized, but I think there’s a sentiment among players, who feel like they’re not in a strong position, that in this case, Robert Kraft standing shoulder to shoulder with Tom Brady and never really backing off, I think that’s an important symbol for players,” Boland said.

New England Patriots Overview | PointAfter

Overcoming Allegations

Repeated on-field success has helped sports teams overcome controversies on many occasions in the past. The New York Yankees remain Major League Baseball’s most valuable franchise, despite the fact that several of the team’s most prominent figures at the height of its success in the late 1990s and early 2000s were linked to performance-enhancing drugs. Italian soccer club Juventus remains one of the world’s most popular teams less than a decade after its involvement in a match-fixing scandal.

Earlier this week, an ESPN report revealed the Patriots had illegally filmed defensive signals at 40 games from 2000 to 2007 – a damning accusation by any measure. But most of the report’s fallout focused on the fact that Goodell had allegedly ordered the destruction of evidence against the Patriots to protect the league’s image, and that owners had characterized Goodell’s harsh stance on Deflategate as his attempt to make good on his failings during Spygate. That the Patriots had engaged in shady dealings in 2007 was mostly dismissed as ancient history.

“Unethical behavior or bad behavior from athletes or owners is forgiven when you win and you’re committed to winning and you’re committed to that local community,” Maestas said. “That may not be true in the outside world, but it’s a local business. Even though it’s a national league, it’s a local business that they’re running.”

Regardless of whether you sided with the league or the Patriots during the Deflategate saga, one thing is clear: the NFL's season-opener Thursday will be appointment television.

“It certainly builds curiosity about the team,” Dorfman said. “I expect the ratings for tonight’s game are going to be huge.”