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Not all fun & games: Sports tie-ins can cause uneasy moments for clients—agencies beware!

by | Aug 10, 2023 | Public Relations

Many years ago before jumping the fence to the PR side, I was a sports reporter for several New York City newspapers and a wire service.

In those days, sports news was considered unimportant, compared to business, political and world news. (It still is, in my opinion.) In fact, the sports department was called the Toy Department, and for good reason—only the good and fun side of sports received coverage; the dark side was hardly ever covered.

That changed some years ago. Print sports reporters now routinely report on the warts of sports. Not so much television gameday play-by-play announcers and analysts, who largely ignore or downplay the Verrucae Vulgaris that anyone who pays close attention to the sports scene knows exists. (There are exceptions, of course: Bob Costas is famous for telling the entire story and Howard Cosell also was a truth-seeking trailblazer, although his glorification of the “big hit” on Monday Night Football places him a distant second to Costas, in my opinion.)

Also, in my opinion, the way coverage of sports has changed means that PR agencies should also change the way sports marketing accounts are looked at—and consider every sports marketing account as a possible client that could be in a crisis situation

That’s because there is no way to prevent a sports marketing client to be dragged into the politics of sports because of the actions of others and many sports sponsorships receive negative media coverage because they hawk products that are  detrimental to health, like gambling from home, eating unhealthy foods and consuming sugary drinks and alcoholic beverages.

While there are many examples of clients being tarred by the political fallout, I’ll mention only two, one from a decade ago and one from a few years ago: Sports marketers and the International Olympic Committee would rather forget the turmoil that engulfed the 2014 Sochi Olympics, when Russia’s political actions caused many marketers to be dragged into the negative media coverage and had to cancel or re-design their long-planned multi-million dollar campaigns. Also not to be forgotten was the controversy about holding the Tokyo 2020 Olympics during the Summer of Covid.

PR agencies and their sports marketing clients must not forget the lessons that they should have learned from those Olympics

They should be prepared if the controversies about corruption charges and allowing Russian and Belarus athletes that have been receiving major negative media coverage regarding next year’s Paris Summer Olympic Games disrupt their  client’s plans.

PR agencies should also remember that it’s not just international sporting events that can put a client in a crisis or embarrassing situation not of their own making, as two recent happenings in the U.S. show:

The most recent one was when former president Donald Trump said after the U.S. team lost to Sweden in the Women’s World Cup that the loss was “fully emblematic of what is happening to our once great Nation under Crooked Joe Biden.” “Many of our players were openly hostile to America. No other country behaved in such a manner, or even close. Woke equals failure,” he wrote on his website. Sponsors of the U.S. soccer team could not be happy about Mr. Trump’s dumping on the team and probably were hoping that they would not be contacted by a reporter for a comment.

The second one was when the NBA Players Union criticized the Orlando Magic on Thursday for its $50,000 donation to a super PAC supportive of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. “A political contribution from the Orlando Magic is alarming given recent comments and policies of its beneficiary,” the union, the National Basketball Players Association, said in a statement, the New York Times reported

The Times story also reported the following from the player’s union: “NBA governors, players and personnel have the right to express their personal political views, including through donations and statements.” However, if contributions are made on behalf of an entire team, using money earned through the labor of its employees, it is incumbent upon the team governors to consider the diverse values and perspectives of staff and players.”

The fallout from the above controversies, as well as the ones regarding the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics is not over. In fact, they might still be hatching as I write this.

But in any event, they show that the days when sports were covered by the Toy Department have long disappeared and PR agencies with sports marketing clients have to be prepared for any contingencies.

When staffing sports marketing accounts, PR agencies must remember that crises situations involving individual teams are usually of others’ makings. Not so when hawkers of unhealthy and “sin” products receive negative coverage.

Agencies should make certain that the sports marketing account team includes a person who has the background necessary to respond to negative media coverage and not wither under incoming flak

Assigning sports junkies to “normal” sports marketing accounts is not a good idea. Assigning them to Olympic–associated accounts is a major error. Staff the account teams with people who realize that sports is as much a business as any other account that the agency handles.

And since the coverage of sporting events is no longer relegated to the Toy Department, sports marketing accounts should include staffers who have had experience working on social, business, and political accounts. And the account should be headed by an individual who knows the sports territory.

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.

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