New PR and sports marketing thinking needed more than ever, although it was needed years ago

by | Aug 25, 2021 | Analysis, Public Relations

One year ago on August 26, 2020, the sports world came to a halt, when athletes refused to play because of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin—giving merit to what I’ve told many clients over the years: It’s way past the time for sports marketers to consider other promotional tie-ins.

The athletes strike began when the National Basketball Association’s Milwaukee Bucks refused to play a scheduled playoff game. Their stand quickly spread across a number of sports, when athletes from the Women’s National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer joined with the Bucks in protesting the killings of Black men.

What happened on August 26 came as a surprise to the leagues and moguls that run the sports world. But while a work stoppage by athletes was unexpected, for decades sports marketers had to hold their breaths hoping that their athlete representative’s conduct wouldn’t upset potential consumers. Add to that politicians using sports as a whipping post and the sporting world has long lost its carefully crafted public relations image as being a model for the best attributes in American society, always a fantasy.

I have been advising clients for years to consider no sports promotional vehicles, or at least to diversify its marketing public relations campaigns, even though my first job in the communications business was as a sports reporter for New York City dailies and for many years I was the sports marketing guru at Burson-Marsteller, where I managed and played key roles in national and international sports marketing campaigns.

My first job in public relations was at a political agency, where I worked on several local, state and presidential campaigns. My second job in PR was with a national entertainment agency, where I stayed for 10 years before being recruited by B-M, where I toiled for almost a quarter of a century before becoming an independent PR consultant. It was my days at the political and entertainment agencies that convinced me that many of the tenets of PR still being used then and now by the big corporate international agencies should be ignored.

When I joined B-M, I often suggested to clients who wanted a program that would gain major print and TV publicity to consider promotional relationships without sports tie-ins

I stressed there has been a major change in the way sports are covered since my sports writing days. The initial change came in the 1950s and 60s, when the “chipmunks,” a group of baseball writers broke from their elders and did not cover the sport as if it was a gift from the Gods. Today, there are two big changes that PR people should point out to clients: Much of the media will no longer cover up the unsportsmanlike conduct of athletes or sports moguls and sports are now tied to the hip with politics.

Even the International Olympic Committee finally acknowledged that it could not prevent athletes from expressing political viewpoints. While still awarding its games to totalitarian countries that use them as propaganda vehicles, on July 2 it said that athletes can make a symbolic gesture expressing their views before the start of an event.

Despite many brands and PR practitioners clinging to the past, history shows that much has changed in the sports marketing business over the years

This is primarily for eight reasons:

  • Television becoming the prime viewing vehicle for watching local, national and international sporting events, and
  • The increasing cost of a sports marketer being the “official sponsor” of a league, and
  • The increasing cost of advertising on television of a sporting event, and
  • The steadily upward creep of sports on pay TV, and
  • The cost of executing a marketing campaign to support promotional tie-ins with athletes, leagues and TV advertising, and
  • Sports is now covered as a business, exposing its transgressions on none sports TV and print outlets, as well as on print and TV sports media, and
  • The one-time sports writers credo “that if it happens off the playing field it’s not a sports story” is largely history among print journalists; not so by many game day broadcasters, and
  • Most important, the athletes using their platforms to speak about political situations.

All are important, but it is the last bullet that makes me believe that it’s way past time for sports marketers to consider other promotional tie-ins.

While the twice-impeached former demagogic President Trump ignited the current wave of political attacks on athletes, wrongly thinking doing so would help improve his popularity ratings, which never exceeded 49% and was a low of 34% when he left office, President Joe Biden, has also delved into sports as a political weapon, when he backed moving Major League Baseball’s All-Star game from Atlanta because of new voting laws enacted by Georgia, which Biden said limited voting.

It is also not uncommon for athletes to take a political stand. Many athletes have done so; the most prominent one is National Basketball Association star LeBron James.

James is only one of many athletes who now believe that being a well-known personality provides a platform to take a leadership position and speak out against racial injustice.

Regardless of how a marketer personally feels, most businesses do not want to be dragged into political disputes

James’ delving into matters political can be used as an example of why marketers should be wary when considering sports spokespersons. (Full discloser: I support athletes speaking out in favor of causes they support, but I also have a responsibility to suggest what I believe is in the best interest of clients.)

Also, the NBA’s social justice coalition joined with the WNBA’s player union and issued a statement on the anniversary of George Floyd’s death asking Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

But words are one thing and actions are another

The snowballing events that most alarmed team owners occurred the week of August 26, when much of the sports world came to a stop because of player’s protests. It began when the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to play a playoff game, on August 26, to show support for Black Lives Matter, causing the NBA to postpone three games. They were soon joined by the Women’s National Basketball Association the National Hockey League and by Major League Baseball teams. The Atlanta Dreams of the WNBA went further than just refusing to play a few games. They actively campaigned against Sen. Kelly Loeffler because of her comments regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. (Sen. Loeffler, an owner of the team at that time, was defeated for re-election by Dr. Raphael Warnock.)

At the recently concluded Tokyo Olympics, Raven Saunders of the United States, the silver medal winner in the women’s shot-put, raised her hands on the podium crossing them in the shape of an X during the medal ceremony, saying that the gesture was to show her support for “oppressed people.”

A few minutes later, American fencer, Race Imboden, went to the podium at a different venue after the United States took the bronze medal in foil. He had a circled “X” on his hand. In 2019, he was placed on probation by the United States Olympic Committee for kneeling during the playing of the national anthem in Peru during the medal ceremony at the Pan Am Games, when his team won the gold medal, and then tweeted his criticism of then President Donald Trump, and racism, gun violence and the mistreatment of immigrants in the U.S.

As certain as the moon affects the tides, American athletes will continue to speak out about political natters at future Olympics (and other events)

The leader of the organizing committee for the Los Angeles games in 2028 asked the International Olympic Committee to end its ban on political demonstrations. And American Olympic officials said they would not punish athletes who speak out as long as their statements did not contain hate speech.

Also, again politicizing sports was the twice-impeached former president Trump, joined by right wing commentators, when he said the reason for U.S.’s losses at the Olympics was because they were too “woke.” Trump also criticized the Cleveland Indians for changing its name to the Cleveland Guardians and previously had criticized the National Football League and the National Basketball Association for not punishing its players who spoke out about racial injustice. (It seems that the only sport the former president hasn’t criticized is hot air balloon races.)

For marketers that want to avoid being dragged into politics, there’s an easy solution: Have no sports promotional tie-ins

If crafted correctly, they can achieve as much major media coverage as costly sports promotions at a fraction of the budget. That’s because, except for marketing, advertising and trade journalists, the size of a budget doesn’t matter to reporters, editors and producers. It’s the news or feature elements that are the deciding factors in resulting coverage. Too many PR people forget or don’t know that.

PR people should remember that pitching an athlete usually results in the reporter talking about sports, even if the client is trying to sell sun glasses. Using a person who has expertise in the subject you are pitching results in a story containing client talking points, which should be the objective of any media campaign.

For sports-related products, a publicity campaign emphasizing a sports connection obviously makes sense. But during my career, I’ve seen many non-sports clients force the sports connection. And, to me, that doesn’t make sense because there are so many other methods of gaining more targeted publicity.

When creating a program for publicity purposes, whether or not it’s sports-related, here are three important rules that I’ve always followed when selecting personalities as publicity spokespersons:

  • Don’t use a personality who has endorsed multiple products. It hinders a friendly reporter from mentioning your client’s product;
  • Don’t use an individual famous for one happening.  Chances are the reporter will write mostly about the occurrence; and
  • Use a spokesperson who fits the account. For a financial client, use an investment advisor, for a building supply client, use a contractor, etc. Doing so provides expertise to the discussion.

But in order to get the most bang for your money, I’ve always told clients not to only think sports.

Arthur Solomon
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 was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He has been a key player on Olympic marketing programs and also has worked at high-level positions directly for Olympic organizations. During his political agency days, he worked on local, statewide and presidential campaigns. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com.