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PR tactics sports marketers can use to keep clients out of political controversies

by | Mar 8, 2023 | Public Relations

Sports fanatics in our business often are so excited when they are assigned to or suggest a sports marketing mega-project to a client that they often fail to consider the downsides that might occur, which are many. The downsides have always been there, punctuated by the misbehavior of athlete spokespersons.

But in recent years, since sports writers began covering sports as a business, the negative aspects of a sports tie-in are now a near-constant story that includes not only sports marketers and their brands, but networks, players and two presidents of the United States.

President Joe Biden, former president Donald Trump, National Football League players inspired by Colin Kaepernick and National Basketball Association standout LeBron James, among others, have something in common. They all are responsible for injecting politics into sports. And that’s a problem for many sports marketers.

President Biden spoke out in support of relocating baseball’s 2021 all-star game from Georgia because of the state’s voting restrictions. Former President Trump consistently injected politics into sports, and LeBron James disagreed with an NBA executive tweet “”Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” In addition, many athletes have spoken out on socio/political issues.

Sports coverage has changed dramatically over the years and PR practitioners should consider the changes before suggesting a sports marketing tie-in for a client

And if they do, they should advise clients of the risks that might accompany a sports association.

When I was a novice sports writer, a major tenet for reporters assigned to the then-called “Toy Department,” was:

  • If it happens off the playing field, it’s not a sports story.
  • Another was “don’t rock the boat” by writing stores that will upset the leagues or teams.
  • And the most frequent editorial direction given to a young reporter was, “Write about the game as it happened; don’t opinionize your story.”

In those long-ago days, there were also major tenets that athletes followed when talking to reporters:

  • Don’t get involved in controversial discussions with reporters.
  • If it’s said in the clubhouse, it remains in the club house.
  • Don’t say anything to a reporter that will upset team management or the league.

Also,

  • Athletes who expressed opinions that upset team owners were called “club house lawyers.”
  • Sports writers who didn’t kneel at the feet of baseball royalty and didn’t think a well thrown curve ball was ordained by heaven were known as chipmunks.
  • There was also a tenet that athletes seeking brand endorsements followed: Don’t talk politics or express an opinion that might upset sport marketers. Doing so would probably end any possibility of getting an endorsement.

Of course, in those days, athletes weren’t making the salary those in the major sports 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.)

But times have changed: 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 noteworthy example being that of NBA basketball player George Hill of the Milwaukee Bucks, who in 2020 was the key person that led NBA players and athletes in other sports to protest racial injustice by participating in a wildcat strike, leading to boycotts and rescheduling of games in all sports that permeated across the sports world.

Today, athletes who are 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.

There are two suggestions I have for such brands:

  • Look for ways of promoting a product that does not include a sports tiein, or
  • Use well-known retired athletes who have been out of the media spotlight for years. They are less likely to get involved in political situations because many need promotional money more than current ones who have no fear of saying what they think.

The current 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:

  • Prowess on the sports fields cannot prevent past or present misbehavior from being reported on.
  • Why chance having a company or its product represented by athletes who have misbehaved when there are so many other options.
  • Some athletes represent so many products that consumers and the media don’t take their endorsements seriously.
  • During interviews, reporters will concentrate on the athlete’s achievements, 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.
  • 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 or if you prefer a missed field goal.)
  • 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 social and political causes, occasionally dragging their unhappy sponsoring brands into the story.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.”

Many sports writers credit me with being at the forefront of using retired athletes 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.

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.

Early on, when I first honchoed sports marketing accounts, I decided that the accounts should not be staffed by sports fanatics because too often the excitement of working with the hero of the moment or going to a mega event would distract the person from the objective – maximizing the client’s involvement. During negotiations with Major League Baseball for a client, my a.e. said, “You have to understand their position.” That was the last time I ever took him to a negotiating session.  So my advice is to staff sports marketing accounts with people who know and like sports but view it as a business – just like the moguls who control the sports industry do.

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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