In Sports, Money Is The Winner

Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant

When the book about the greatest public relations campaigns is written, near the top of the list, if not leading the list, will be the faux programs related to sports. It will not include the record breaking performances of individual athletes, but the fictional myth promoted by the industry that the sports business is unlike others and should be treated differently than other commercial endeavors.

As someone who has spent a major part of his career in the sports universe, first as a journalist and then managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sporting events, I’ve always known that it’s not winning or the way the game is played that counts with management. It’s the money that the sports moguls bring to the bank that matters.

This was proved again with the recent National Basketball Association censoring its players from talking to the media after its games in China at the request of the dictatorial Chinese government.

At stake for the NBA, the league that made a big splash by permitting its players to speak freely about political and social issues, (unlike the National Football League, the International Olympic Committee and other sports organizations), losing access to a major market after an NBA executive tweeted about the rights of Hong Kong protesters was more important than our first amendment. Obviously, Houston Rockets executive Daryl Morey believed in the freedom to speak NBA policy when he tweeted, “Fight For Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” What we now know is that the open mike for players (and apparently for league execs) was just a public relations stance by the NBA. It has now been shown to have limitations if it will cost the league money.

Anyone who follows the international sporting scene should not be surprised by the NBA’s actions. It appears that when money is at stake, American sports organizations, players, networks and its gangs of sponsoring companies, the largest backers of international sporting events, are eager participants in the fairly tale of “bringing the world closer through sports,” even when games are award to totalitarian governments. It’s as if Donald Trump was orchestrating the move to make dictators camouflage themselves as sportsmen.

The NBA freedom to speak policy was for many years the shining light of the sports business. Now it has been eclipsed by the dark side of the sports business and is just another of the entities that care more about money than democracy.

Joining with its employers in the quest for money over democracy were NBA players who have been outspoken about racial and other aspects of life in the U.S. But in China, it appears protecting their brand was more important than speaking freely about despotic conditions. (No Nathan Hale or Martin Luther King-like statements when money is at stake.)

Historians and some sports writers will tell you that sports have always had a checkered career in America’s history, most of it on the debit side of the ledger.

  • For decades, the NFL not only denied that its employees would suffer brain damage from hard hits, but also attempted to destroy the reputation and career of a leading researcher in brain trauma, and
  • It wasn’t until the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to a Minor League contract, in 1945, that the color line was broken by a Major League Baseball team, and

Ever since the Nazi Olympics, American sports marketers have joined the IOC and FIFA in believing that democracy takes a back seat to international sporting events. In addition to the 1936 Berlin games, and the Sochi (Russia) Olympics in 2014, the IOC also awarded its games to the Soviet Union in 1980, Yugoslavia in 1984 and China in 2008. And still to come, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, and The United States Olympic Committee and its affiliates have a sorry history of ignoring sexual abuse of young athletes until it becomes public knowledge.

A realist would admit that whether the subject is national or international sports what happens on the playing field is secondary to what happens off the playing field. What really matters is what happens to the bank accounts of players and moguls.

There are important PR lessons to be learned from the NBA-China situation: You never know when your client is minutes away from a PR crisis (Be Prepared), and don’t believe your own propaganda.

The Unspoken PR Tenet: Bad News Is Good News for Our Business By Arthur SolomonAbout the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) and artsolomon4pr (at)