Teflon Wrapped Sports Sponsors: Their Protective Coating Has Vanished (Or has it?)

Arthur Solomon - The Not So New PR Crises EnablersArthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant

Now that the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in democratic South Korea have concluded, Olympic sponsors are breathing a sigh of relief. Unlike the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, in totalitarian Russia, there have been no mass protests against sponsors of the games. That should be a lesson-learned by the International Olympic Committee – don’t award the Olympics to countries that are ruled by dictatorial regimes. (But if history is repeated, chances are the lesson will go unheeded.)

Until the Sochi Olympics, sponsors of sporting events seemed to be wrapped in polytetrafluoroethylene. Nothing stuck to them even though they are essential partners with sporting entities because they provide the necessary fuel – AKA as money — for the sports organizations.

Media criticism of the National Football League, Major League Baseball, FIFA, the U.S. Olympic Committee, and some of its kin, and the International Olympic Committee, and to a lesser extent the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, has been ongoing for years. Add in the unsportsmanlike conduct of their athletes and there are enough examples to create a reality TV series based on the warts of sports.

For sports marketers the question is how long the immunity given to sponsors by the media will continue as marketers keep mum about the controversial and unsavory actions by its sports partners?

The answer is, it depends on who’s doing the watching.

If you are a follower of sports on TV, negative comments by play-by-play and color analysts about sponsors not speaking out about the underbelly of sports are as frequent as a snowy July day at the Equator. It’s as if the broadcasters and sponsors have taken the PR advice of the famous three monkeys — “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” and have ostrich-like blocked out the nefarious actions of athletes and sports organizations.

Below are few examples from the past and present that prove that for decades sports marketing sponsors have been living in a Teflon-like world.

Examples:

  • For years the National Football League has received major media print criticism for pretending that it didn’t know that concussions to its players could produce serious life-altering medical conditions, and more recently for pretending it didn’t know about how prevalent sexual and physical abuse by its players was. But the league’s sponsors received no criticism for staying silent. NFL sponsors must feel that they are protected by the NFL shield because the Feb. 12 edition of “SportsBusiness Journal,” the bible of the sports marketing industry, had a column by Terry Lefton headlined, “Sponsors support league’s response to recent challenges.”
  • Major League Baseball also has been subjected too much media criticism for its decades-long handling of the steroid situation. And in December, 2017, for ignoring years of anti-social behavior by one of its top business money makers. But the sponsors of baseball received no criticism for turning a blind eye to baseball’s problems.
  • Sponsors also kept mum when the IOC awarded their games to a gang of totalitarian countries, led by the 1936 Nazi Olympics in Germany. Other despotic countries that basked in the Olympic spotlight were China, which will also host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, the city that also hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, making Beijing the only city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics. Russia also was selected twice and Yugoslavia once. (Obviously, the games are more important to the IOC then a free society.)

While print sports reporters have written critically about athletes and sports organizations, little has been written negatively about the overwhelming majority of sponsors that kept silent about issues that were evident in the U.S. sports scene for decades, including racial discrimination, concussions, sexual harassment and in the international arena about the IOC’s awarding of the Olympic Games to totalitarian countries, as well the its punting regarding Russia’s state-sanctioned athlete doping program by parsing the facts and permitting some “clean” Russian athletes to participate in the just concluded Winter Olympics, in which two Russian athletes, to date, failed doping tests.

However, it seems that the protective screen given to sponsors might be breached forever (only time will tell) because of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia

At those games in Sochi, criticism, once largely limited to the sports organizations and teams, spread to the sponsors’ sector that supported the games, as calls to boycott products because of Russia’s anti-gay laws, received major negative media coverage.

Because of the totalitarian aspects of the Sochi games, what sponsors of football, baseball and other sports, and especially the Olympic Games have always feared has become a reality. When controversy occurs, sponsors can become part of the story.

Over the years, I have played key roles in significant sports marketing promotions, including those associated with the NFL, MLB, Olympics, and traveled the world with high-ranking government officials involved with the Olympics as a media adviser. I also have advised and/or managed social and political concerns during the games.

During frank discussions with my clients and non-client sponsors, we have discussed the advantages and disadvantages of spending mega marketing dollars on events like the Olympics and Super Bowl. Believe me, what sponsors say publicly about their sports marketing investments is not necessarily what they say in private.

It took decades before sports writers stopped ignoring the none-sportsmanlike activities of athletes and sports organizations and report as reporters should. Game day TV baseball and football broadcaters will now occasionally talk about misbehaving players, but never harshly. A person still has to read the print pubs for the entire story. But the covering up of seedy activities of athletes and sports entities has changed immensely from the days when what happened outside of the arena was ignored by sports journalists because it wasn’t considered a sports story

What happens outside of the arena is no longer considered out of bounds for sports journalists and the coverage of unspotsmanlike activities is continuous, especially when major sports entities and prominent athletes are involved. Prominent coverage is also given to protest groups targeting mega sporting events. Any event that will receive world-wide coverage, like the Olympics, Super Bowl, World Series or FIFA championship games are possible targets for social group protesters and sponsors must be prepared to answers protesters concerns.

This is best done by talking to community activists and whenever possible including their concerns in PR programs. The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, where sponsors’ marketing programs had to be curtailed because of protests by activist groups, proves how easy it is for sponsors to be targeted as well as organizers of events.

Throwing out the old sports marketing PR playbook and demanding that agencies research possible activist actions and plan for possible protests is a must. Each PR sports marketing program must contain pre- PR crisis elements because it’s prudent to be prepared for a crisis if one should develop.

Unlike the days when I was a young sports reporter and was told I can’t write about the warts of sports (even though I tried), times have changed. Today it’s largely sports print journalists who report on the true state of the sports scene. That’s good. The great majority of U.S. sports marketing sponsors of domestic and international sporting events still act like the “hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil” monkeys. That’s bad.

About the Author: Arthur Solomon 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 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

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