Sports Marketing Patriotism 

Arthur Solomon - Sports Marketing Patriotism Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant

The next Super Bowl will be number LII. It will be held at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Feb 4, 2018. True football fans know that Super Bowl games are far from the best football of a season. (The playoffs are.) Super Bowl TV viewers usually see a string of over hyped commercials interrupted every few minutes by the football. Betting pools are ubiquitous in the work places, but game number LII might add a new wrinkle to the office pools – guessing the number of football players that will take a knee or demonstrate by linking arms, sitting on the bench or staying in the locker room during the national anthem.

That’s because on September 22, President Trump resorted to his locker room language saying, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL. owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired.’”

The reverberations from the president’s remarks have caused a public relations crisis for the National Football League and PR firms that seem likely to continue unabated for quite a while. It also has resulted in the way football is covered by the media. On TV broadcasts, the national anthem is often not televised. And unlike when the controversy first began, it is often no longer a subject of discussions on pre-game or half-time shows.

But the biggest coverage change is evident in the print media. Stories about players kneeling or protesting in other ways during the national anthem have become a weekly media watch.

Joe Lockhart, the NFL’s top PR person, has been criticized, according to media stories, by team owners for his handling of the situation. Criticizing PR people is not unheard of in our business, when corporate executives see that PR crisis specialists can’t contain negative coverage or that programs don’t deliver the promises made during presentations. ( My rule re presentations on accounts that I managed, and stressed to account groups that I was an advisor too, was not to make promises: Just present the program and convince clients why it was crafted to enhance the products or communicate corporate messages. That’s because if you over promise and don’t deliver the client will be disappointed. But if the results exceed the expectations you will have a happy client.)

Because of the anthem brouhaha, the NFL was criticized by one of its major marketers. Papa John’s International Inc. founder John Schnatter openly criticized the leadership of Commissioner Roger Goodell, blaming weak pizza sales on the anthem controversy.

“The NFL has hurt us by not resolving the current debacle to the players’ and owners’ satisfaction,” said Schnatter, according to news reports. “This should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago,” he said.

While occasionally, in the past, some sponsors have openly criticized sports organizations, it is highly unusual to blame falling sales on their partners’ behavior.

Sports Marketing Patriotism There are five important lessons to be learned from the continuing negative coverage:

  • Despite the best efforts of PR crisis specialists, they cannot prevent or lessen negative stories.
  • Only the media can decide when to cease reporting on a crisis.
  • As the sports philosopher Yogi Berra is alleged to have said, “It’s not over till it’s over.” In our business, that translates to that when a company has had a crisis problem, it becomes part of its DNA and can be referred to forever in media stories.
  • PR firms use of celebrity spokespersons are mow more risky than ever. If a spokesperson upsets the president, a tweet and statement criticizing both the individual and company is a strong possibility.
  • And, most important, as I have opined for decades. Every PR crisis needs original thinking. There is no such thing as a one size fits all crisis strategy.

Trump’s less than gentlemanly use of language which ignited the crisis was not new, or unexpected, given his uber patriotic America First comments. But for me, it raised the question of sports’ place in our society, especially the marketing of patriotism by our sports leagues, which wrap themselves around the flag.

Even though my first job in journalism was as a sports reporter and I managed or played key roles in some of the most prestigious national and international sports events prior to and after my nearly 25 years at Burson-Marsteller (which included none sports assignments), I always questioned what patriotism had to do with a sporting event.

The grand daddy of sports wrapping it self around the flag is, of course, the NFL. Our other major sport, Major League Baseball, followed and other sports also rallied around the flag.

What kicking a football, pitching a baseball, hitting a foul shot or scoring on a power play have to do with patriotism baffles me.

Many of the fans and players at these events obviously agree. During the playing, of the national anthem, fans can be seen talking to each other, looking at their cell phones, walking to concessions stands and finally, before the conclusion of the anthem, whistling and shouting.

Even before former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick caused the ruckus by kneeling during the playing of the anthem last season, players standing would shuffle, chew gum, scratch their crotches, spit and speak to each other, nervously waiting for the game to begin.

A few years ago, Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake released a report saying the NFL, MLB and other sports associations were paid by the Department of Defense for patriotic displays at the events. The report said that the D O D spent more than $50-million for the sports/patriotism nexus. The senators offered an amendment prohibiting payment to leagues for paid patriotic displays.

Now, before some baseball games, a military person is honored on the field. In some games, players wear camouflage uniforms, instead of their usual game-day uniforms.

Super Bowl game patriotic displays are worthy of a Cecil B DeMille production with dance routines choreographed by Busby Berkeley. In my opinion, all of the above demeans the true meaning of patriotism and reduces it to sports show biz patriotism on the playing field, while true patriots are dodging bullets, instead of concussion-causing tackles and ducking from close to the head fast balls.

For years, the military has been trying to get businesses to hire the vets. Doing so by the sports associations would show true patriotism.

As for the president’s s o b remark, it resulted in what the president always seeks – attention. It’s as if Trump is a follower of another showman, Phineas T. Barnum, who is alleged to have said,
“There is no such thing as bad publicity.” But sports aside, more important, in my opinion, Trump’s vulgarities demean the office of the president. Perhaps someone should get him a thesaurus or wash his mouth with soap.

Some pundits have said that Trump deliberately makes outrageous remarks to divert media attention from the on-going Russian investigations, which despite the “nothing hear” comments by the White House lawyer’s and  PR staff is picking up steam. If that is true, by now the president should know that there is enough media to cover both.

Unlike President Trump, who despite his patriotic bluster never serviced in the military, I stood for the national anthem and saluted the flag while in an Army uniform. (Fortunately I never had to fire a gun in anger.)

I still stand during the playing of the anthem and salute the flag at Memorial Day, and July 4th observances and on other patriotic occasions. But I never understood why the anthem is played at a ballgame. I never understood what a ballgame has to do with patriotism. Never did. Never will. It’s what I call “Sports Marketing Patriotism.”


About 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 now is a contributor to public relations and sports business publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. While in the Army, he was an instructor at the Army Information School, was assigned to the Public Information Office and helped edited an Army newspaper. He can be reached at