Major League Baseball punished Georgia by removing its All-Star Game from Atlanta after the state enacted a law that critics, including President Joe Biden, said would restrict voting rights. The game will now be played on July 13 in Denver.
The decision to relocate the game is only the most recent of many decisions that have made it evident to the dismay of sports marketers and sports leagues that sports and politics are now entwined. And if there’s one thing that marketers try to avoid is to have their products become part of a political dispute because Democrats, Republicans, liberal and conservatives consumers are potential customers.
Political involvement in sports is nothing new. Sports have always been entangled with politics. In the 1968 Olympics, held in Mexico City, two African-American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, protested by each raising black-gloved fists during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” decades before former President Donald Trump attempted to rile up the country in 2017 when National Football League players refused to stand for the national anthem.
More recently LeBron James narrated an ad that premièred before the National Basketball Association’s All-Star Game on March 7 (2021) in support of Black voting rights. Biden’s remarks about moving baseball’s All-Star Game occurred on March 31, the day before the opening of the season during an interview on ESPN. And ever since the 1936 Nazi Olympics in Berlin, the International Olympic Committee has awarded its games to totalitarian countries that use them as public relations vehicles.
And while still awarding its games to totalitarian countries, even the IOC finally acknowledged that it could not prevent athletes from making political statements during its games, when, on July 2, it said that athletes can make a symbolic gesture expressing their views before the start of an event.
Removing major athletic events are not without precedent.
The NBA moved its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans in objection to a North Carolina House bill limiting anti-discrimination protections. In 1991, the NFL moved the 1993 Super Bowl from Phoenix to Pasadena, Calif., after Arizona voters rejected making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a paid holiday.
On the international scene, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter pushed for the U.S. to boycott the Olympics in Russia after Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan the previous years. In 1984, Russia retaliated, boycotting the games in Los Angeles. There also have been instances where individuals countries have refused to participate in an Olympics because of political considerations. And China, which will host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, has warned the U.S. not to boycott those games.
When considering using an athlete as a publicity spokesperson, young PR people and marketers must take into consideration how athletes’ salaries have sky rocketed over the years. In years past, athletes weren’t making the salary those in the major leagues make today and the endorsement stipends were often necessary to support their family. (Many athletes in those days had off-season jobs to make ends meet.)
Also to be considered is how sports coverage has changed over the years and marketers wary of being dragged into a political dispute should consider the changes before suggesting a sports marketing tie-in for a client.
Athlete misbehavior off the playing field is now routinely covered by sports writers. More disturbing to many sports marketers is that athletes are increasingly speaking out about and actively involved in political issues, the most significant example being that of a relatively unheralded NBA basketball player, George Hill of the Milwaukee Bucks, who convinced teammates to protest racial injustice by not playing a game, leading to boycotts and rescheduling of games in all sports that permeated across the sports world.
Today, athletes not afraid of being punished by teams for taking political stands provide a problem for sport sponsorship brands that want to stay clear of political situations for fear of upsetting customers.
While I certainly support all none violent protests, and salute marketers that speak out in favor of racial justice, marketers that don’t want to be involved in these protests have a right to remain silent.
Here’s my suggestion for such brands: Use retired athletes, less likely to get involved in political situations (because many need the endorsement money) instead of current ones who have no fear of saying what they think.
The athlete protests vindicates what I have been preaching for many years to sports marketers: Using a current athlete as a brand publicity hawker can be dicey. Here’s why:
1 – Prowess on the sports fields cannot prevent past or present misbehavior from being reported on.
2 – Why chance having a company or its product represented by athletes who have misbehaved when there are so many other options.
3 – Some athletes represent so many products that consumers and the media don’t take their endorsements seriously.
4 – During interviews, reporters will concentrate on the athlete’s achievements, most 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 for an athlete famous for one occurrence, like 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.)
5 –Most of the time the story of a current athlete after an interview 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.)
6 – 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.
7 – Current athletes probably have been written about many times regarding their play on the field, making it highly unlikely that journalists 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.
8 – Nostalgia reporting is a major element of sports coverage and retired athletes who haven’t been in the spotlight for a while are welcome candidates for interviews.
9 – In my experience, it’s easier for these retired athletes to work in client talking points because a sure question from reporters will be, “What are you doing these days.”
When I first began using retired athletes, many sports writers credited me with being at the forefront of using them as publicity spokesmen, as I did beginning in the 1970s while at Burson-Marsteller, and in the 1960s at Advance Public Relations, at the time one of the largest national Broadway and TV entertainment agencies.
Today, when reporters no longer hide the unsportsmanlike conduct of athletes, and many athletes are eager to act as concerned citizens and delve into political situations, retired athletes provide a method for conservative brands (that’s lower case “c”) to gain recognition for their products and also greatly reduce the possibility of their spokespersons ending up in the police report, instead of on the sports page, or having the spokespersons talk politics instead of the product and sports.
Another reason to consider using well-known retired athletes as product publicity spokespeople: They’re easier to work with because they enjoy talking about the old days and being remembered and reporters delight in meeting and interviewing idols of their youth.
I once arranged interviews for a Hall of Fame baseball player. A week or so later I received a phone call from his wife thanking me. “Please don’t let xxx know I called you, but I wanted to thank you. He thought he had been forgotten.”
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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.