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PR tactics to keep sports marketing clients from becoming part of political controversies

by | Feb 21, 2024 | Public Relations

In addition to being a football game, the 2024 Super Bowl became a political hot potato when MAGA supporters attacked pop star Taylor Swift for being a Democratic operative. This is not the first time that a sport has become embroiled in matters political. In fact, it’s becoming more common. 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 not been shy about using sports as a vehicle to support their objectives. 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 with his attacks on football players who would not stand for the National Anthem and LeBron James disagreed with an NBA executive’s tweet, “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” In all, 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 stories 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 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 that 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 offseason 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 are actively involved in political issues, one of the most noteworthy examples is 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 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. 

Here are a few suggestions I have for such brands:

Look for ways of promoting a product that does not include a sports tie-in, 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.

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?” 

Using a current athlete as a brand publicity hawker can be dicey. Here’s why:

  • Prowess on the sports field cannot prevent past or present misbehavior from being reported on. 
  • 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 Dodgers 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 all 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. 

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. 

PR practitioners should remember that sports are now treated by journalists like any other big business entity and that the athlete of the day is not necessarily the best spokesperson for a brand. 

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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