Play Ball??? 2020 Changed How Sports Was Played. Should It Change Sports Marketing Public Relations Programs In 2021 And After?

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Arthur Solomon

For baseball fans, “wait ‘till next year” will begin on April 1 (no fooling), when the first Major League game is scheduled to be played. For basketball fans, “wait ‘till next year” began on December 22, 2020, when the National Basketball Association began its current (2020-2021) season. For National Football League fans, 2020 did not end, no matter what the calendar says, until after the February 7, 2021 Super Bowl was history and “wait ‘till next year” will begin on September 9, when the first NFL game of 2021-2022 season is contested. For National Hockey League fans, “wait ‘till next year” began on January 13, 2021. For countless other professional and collegiate sports, the beginning of “wait ‘till next year” will rely on their schedules, not the Gregorian calendar most people use.

Of course, because Covid-19 will still be spreading havoc in 2021, betting the farm that all of the above start dates are set in stone is as ridiculous as thinking that your friendly financial advisor can really predict the future of a stock. 

But one thing is certain. The dreadful year 2020 has changed the life of sports and nonsports fans. Their lives will never be the same and neither will sports.

Sports in 2020 will be remembered as the year of change – for players, leagues, and how the rules of games were altered because of the coronavirus. But will it also change sports marketing approaches? In my opinion, it should.

For most people, there were three major stories that involved sports in the year of Covid-19.

  • The coronavirus pandemic, and
  • The presidential election, and 
  • The on-going protests spurred by the killing of Black men by police gone wrong.

    1 Covid-19 demonstrated that sports moguls only gave lip service to the health of their athletes. Despite professional and college games being shifted to other venues, canceled or postponed, and despite athletes falling ill with the disease, the owners and their TV network counterparts continued to push for a “complete” season. Only the International Olympic Committee, after insisting that Tokyo 2020, their summer games, would be held as scheduled, gave in to reality and postponed the games to this summer after some countries said that they would not send a team to Tokyo in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

    2 Viewership of sports on TV declined. Industry pundits said it was because of the interest in the presidential election. (If that’s true that’s good for America.)

    3 Along with the machinations of an autocratic, pathological, presidential liar, racial justice protests made following sports to many people seem insignificant.

    The year 2020 also produced a quote that New York Mets fans loved and raised the eyebrows of cynics. It was when Steve Cohen, one of whose hedge funds pleaded guilty to securities fraud charges in 2013, purchased the team for a reported $2.4 billion, and said he’s doing it for the fans.

    Even though surveys show that for most Americans what happens in the sports world is of minor interest or no concern, for a certain segment of our society what happens in the sports world is paramount. For them the list above is incomplete. Sports fanatics, sports marketers, TV network brass, pro and college football fans, workers who make their living because of sports-associated businesses, and the various leagues that set the rules for their sports might think the most important story of the year was the work stoppage by pro athletes, who sat out games to protest racial injustice and police brutality. That happening also might have attracted the attention of people who don’t know the difference between a dunk and a wide receiver. But will it translate into new fans? I wouldn’t bet a plug nickel that it will. 

    Events in 2020  have convinced me more than ever that my decades of saying using current  athletes as brand spokespeople is not a good idea because their actions can upset consumers, current and potential, and drag unwilling companies into the political scene.

    It’s not that I think that athletes don’t have the right to speak out. I believe they do.

    It’s not that I disagree with their taking a stand by refusing to play as a protest against police brutality against Black men. 

    It not that I think what the players did was absolutely wrong. Everyone has a right to protest peacefully or go on strike, as these athletes did. In fact, I admire those who did. (But President Trump, as expected, didn’t approve the right of peaceful protests and condemned the players for their actions, the leagues for permitting the work-stoppage without punishing the players, and team owners, in some instances, for vocally supporting the players.) 

    People who don’t live or die by the sports scene might think that Black athletes speaking out about racial injustice is relatively new, beginning when Colin Kaepernick took a knee on a football field in 2016. 

    Nothing could be further than the truth. Some examples:

    • In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in MLB when he was promoted to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Years later, he admitted that he didn’t sing the national anthem.
    • In 1968, American track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in what they said was a protest against racism and injustice on the medal stand of the Olympics in Mexico City. They were banned from Olympic participation and vilified by newspaper columnist Brent Musburger, who called them “black-skinned storm troopers.” Today, the two track stars are considered civil rights heroes.
    • In 1969, St. Louis Cardinals’ all-star centerfielder Curt Flood initiated the path that now gives baseball players free agency, instead of being forced to play for one team indefinitely.
    • But perhaps, it was Cassius Clay, who in 1964 provided the loudest Black athlete voice against racial injustice (at that  time) by changing his name to Muhammad Ali, saying his former name was his “slave name.,” 
    • In 2016, the “modern” day athlete’s racial protests movement was ignited by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, when he knelt during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner.

    Robinson’s, Ali’s and Kaepernick’s actions will always be remembered and written about. Indeed, they are mentioned more than the Carlos, Smith, and Flood’s protests. But in 2020, a relatively unheralded basketball player, except to followers of the NBA, George Hill of the Milwaukee Bucks, convinced teammates to protest racial injustice by not playing a game, leading to boycotts and rescheduling of games that permeated across the sports world.

    Because of Robinson’s joining the then Brooklyn Dodgers, baseball was changed for ever. Because of Hill’s action, all sports were changed forever.

    (I always thought that Jackie Robinson breaking the baseball color line was the most important action by an athlete in professional sports. Now Hill’s action is as least as paramount.)

    Before the 2020 games’ boycotts, protests by athletes were relatively quiet and coverage of their actions didn’t’ have a long shelve life. In fact, the majority of younger sports fans today, and even many, if not most, professional athletes probably don’t know much about them except that they end up in the occasional sports column, the exception being Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson Day, celebrated annually.

    Also, those protests occurred in an era when few athletes spoke publicly about racial injustice. Not now. It’s not unusual to hear an athlete speak about racial and political issues. But the protests of 2020 were truly unique. Instead of a few individual players making a stand, the protests became a movement encompassing hundreds of athletes from various sports refusing to play in an already coronavirus truncated season.

    And during the National Football League season, protests against racial injustice by the players were ubiquitous. Shamefully, in its September 10 season opening telecast between the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs, NBC did not show that the Texans were not on the field during the National Anthem, as a news organization should, even though Cris Collinsworth, a former Cincinnati Bengals player who was one of the announcers said, “I feel like I have to start off by saying I stand behind these players 100%, 100%. What they’re trying to do is bring positive change in this country that frankly is long, long overdue. Let’s just get that out of the way and go call a football game,” he said. (For those readers not familiar with pro football, Collinsworth is not Black.)

    In contrast to NBC’s’ censoring  of the Houston team not being on the field during the Star Spangled Banner, ESPN EVP Stephanie Druley said, “We will cover social justice movements, actions, as they happen.”

    It was not a surprise that players from the National Basketball Association, Women’s National Basketball Association and the National Football League would support the walkout: Their rosters are dominated by Black athletes. What probably shocked sports marketers and MLB officials were that many teams in the league joined the movement even though less than 10% of the players are African-Americans. 

    And a Washington Post poll, published on the opening day of the NFL season, said that 56 percent of Americans approve of athletes kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality; only 42 percent say it is not appropriate. The poll also showed that despite the anti-athlete protest stands of President Trump and conservative politicians and pundits, a 62 percent majority say professional athletes should use their platforms to express their views on national issues, including over 8 in 10 Black Americans and 7 in 10 adults under age 50.

    That presents a problem for sport marketers that want to keep their brands from being caught up in the politics of the situation, fearful that joining the protests or keeping quiet about them, will alienate consumers, pro or con.

    But even prior to the players’ short work-stoppage, many current star athletes were speaking out about racial injustice and getting involved in politics. Basketball star LeBron James and other athletes formed “More Than A Vote,” an organization to promote and protect African-American voting rights. Stephen Curry, the Golden State Warriors star, appeared in a video supporting Joe Biden at the Democratic Convention.  The entire Women’s National Basketball Association’s Atlanta Dream team, and others in the league, endorsed the opponent of then GOP Senator Kelly Loeffler, an owner of the Atlanta team who was defeated for r-election, because of her remarks criticizing Black Lives Matter, and the entire league had to shut down when teams refused to play. Also, many players and coaches from teams of different sports spoke out publicly against the racial inequalities and police brutality. When historians write about sports during the pandemic year of 2020, the big sports story will not be about which teams won or lost or which athlete was the best performer. They’ll write about the uprising by athletes of all sports that will change how sports are looked at forever. 

    Aside from losing revenue from a few games, a worrisome concern of the protests to owners of teams is that the work stoppage also might be the forefront of a more aggressive approach by athletes in dealings with management. It demonstrated that when the players are united that they hold the decisive hand. The athlete protests of 2020 vindicates what I have been preaching for many years to sports marketers: using a current athlete as a brand publicity hawker can be dangerous. Here’s why:

    • Prowess on the sports fields cannot prevent past or present misbehavior from being reported on.
    • Why chance having a company or its product represented by athletes who have misbehaved when there are so many other options.
    • Some athletes represent so many products that consumers and the media don’t take their endorsements seriously.
    • During interviews, reporters will concentrate on the athlete’s achievements, often not even mentioning the product being hawked. (Example: I would never suggest an athlete like LeBron James, because an interview most certainly would be dominated by his racial activism; or Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca, because an interview would probably be centered on his famous pitch to Bobby Thomson that won the pennant for the New York Giants in 1951  or any athlete who is renowned for one famous occurrence)
    • Most of the time after an athlete is interviewed, a story will say something like, “So and So is a spokesperson for the XYZ Company,” and then delve into things sports. Some PR people think that’s a good placement. I don’t. Unless the story contains some client talking points, I consider it a strike out.
    • Unlike the past, when sports stars weren’t making so much money, it was easy to make certain that they would not say anything controversial. Today, it’s impossible to keep athletes from expressing opinions and/or becoming activists in cultural and political causes, occasionally dragging their unhappy sponsoring brands into the story.
    • Current athletes probably have been written about many times regarding their play on the field, making it highly unlikely that a journalist for general news outlets would do a story just because of a product endorsement deal.  These types of stories usually end up in trade pubs.

    As a PR practitioner who has used many athletes as publicity spokespersons, I believe that in certain circumstances using an athlete makes sense, as long as they are not current ones.

    So here’s some alternative thinking about using athletes for public relations purposes, one that sportswriters said I was instrumental in popularizing as a  publicity tool for national sports marketing campaigns, while at Burson-Marsteller in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, when managing the media  thrust for Gillette’s sponsorship of the All-Star Game fan baseball election for eight years. 

    Despite raised eyebrows from some colleagues and the client (who told me, “If you want to take this route we’ll give you enough rope to hang yourself”) I decided to build the publicity around ballplayers whose playing days had past, the rule being that they had All-Star Games credentials.

    Some of the athletes urging fans to vote in the All-Star Game elections were: Lefty Gomez, Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Sparky Anderson, Ernie Banks and Ralph Kiner. I used many retired Olympians for Olympic-related programs, but Bob Mathias, was my go to guy – easy to work with, well-liked by the media and reliable.

    My decision to use these athletes was based on my newspapering day’s experience, before I transitioned to PR, my discussions with reporters and assignment editors/producers and by my knowledge as a former journalist of what the media expected from a PR practitioner.

    My thought process went as follows:

    Current star athletes are interviewed by reporters frequently, so let’s give the media something different to encourage the client plug; let’s also make certain the athlete is a natural fit for the program; talking points should make the Gillette message fundamental to the  All-Star Game fan election; ask media contacts about the newsworthiness/interest of spokesperson candidates prior to using them; immediately eliminated from consideration were athletes who were not media-friendly or were “bad” interviews. Also, let’s factor in the business desk as an integral facet of the publicity campaign for Gillette executives and, when possible, previous advertising campaigns.

    While personally I support and admire athletes who are not afraid to speak about racial injustice, police brutality and other political matters, as a PR practitioner my allegiance is to protect the client on any account I agree to work on. (That doesn’t mean working on accounts whose motives you disagree with. During my career I have refused certain assignments because they went against my beliefs.) 

    For many clients that means keeping them clear of controversial situations by selecting athletes who were silent about non-sports issues. However, for the bold client, aligning itself with athletes who speak out certainly makes sense from a moral perspective. And it certainly would result in on-going publicity.

    But for client’s that want to stay clear of current athletes talking politics, my advice is to use athletes away from the front line of the daily media an consider retired athletes, or better still look for other ways to promote products, because as certain as morning follows night, sports and politics are now forever entwined.

    Grantland Rice, a great sports writer wrote, “For when the One Great Scorer comes, To mark against your name, He writes – not that you won or lost But HOW you played the Game.” 

    In 2020 the rules of the game changed. In my opinion for the better. And so should the rules regarding sports marketing. It might not happen this year, but if players keep taking political stands, it certainly will in future years.


    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) juno.com or artsolomon4pr@optimum.net.