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Too many PR pros underplay the risks of sports promotions—here’s what I learned

by | Dec 15, 2021 | Public Relations

My first job in the media business was as a sports reporter. But after a few years covering fun and games I knew, as did many sports reporters before me, that there were much more important subjects to cover—like war and peace and politics. But my chance of covering government expired when a national news organization went out of business while I was doing my military stint and their promise of assigning me to the D.C. bureau when I completed the obligation to my country vanished.

Instead, I worked on a few political campaigns for a PR political agency, before being hired by a national entertainment firm (I was recommended by a newspaper friend) that needed someone who knew sports to manage a major new TV client that sponsored various sports events, where I toiled for 10 years, and then was recruited by Burson-Marsteller, where for almost a quarter of a century I was the agencies sports marketing guru, and played key roles in many of its flagship sports marketing and none sports campaigns.

Thus, it came as a surprise to clients when I often suggested none sports promotions, telling them that there often was a better way to obtain more meaningful publicity if they would consider other options, always stressing that the apple at the end of the sports stick might be poisoned.

For years, I explained, that tie-ins with sports organizations had its risks

While using an athlete as a publicity spokesperson would results in many stories, they would be devoid of important product or client talking points because most stories would end up with a line saying, “So and so is a spokesperson for XYX,” and then delve into the athlete’s career. Also, the unsportsmanlike, often criminal, off-the-field conduct of many athletes was a constant.

The current controversy between the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and the Chinese government is a prime example why PR people should not automatically suggest a sports nexus to a client without considering the risks.

While the International Olympic Committee’s controversial decision to award the 2022 Winter Olympics to the totalitarian government of China is at the top of my reasoning that sports tie-ins can produce negative media results for clients, there are also others,

But first China:

In China’s case, the Women’s Tennis Association has already decided that actions are louder than words by announcing that it was immediately suspending all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, because they can not speak to tennis star Peng Shuai, who disappeared from public life after accusing a top Communist Party leader of sexual assault.

Because of the Peng Shuai controversy other athletes are now speaking out forcibly about the Shuai situation, not a welcome development for their sponsors who look at China as a cash cow. Among the athletes who have already spoken out are Naomi Osaka, Billie Jean King, Serena Williams, Chris Everett, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and  Novak Djokovic. Perhaps the strongest athlete criticism of holding the 2022 Winter Olympics in totalitarian China came from Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter, who has called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympic Games because of Chinese actions.

But even prior to the Peng Shuai situation there were other reasons that I cautioned clients about sports tie-ins. Five of the most important reasons are:

  • Gone are the days when brands can control what their athletes’ representatives say. When athletes weren’t make the salaries that they now command, most would be wary of making comments that might upset executives of the brands they were hawking. Not so today. And that’s a problem for the marketers. The press no longer protects miscreant athletes. The stories of recurring problems of prominent athletes accused of unsportsmanlike conduct are no longer hidden by sports reporters. Their old credo of “if it happens off the field, it’s not a sports story” has been spiked.
  • Mainstream print and TV broadcasts cover bad behavior of athletes in detail. More importantly, sponsors of tainted athletes and sporting entities have become part of the story and crisis PR people are unable to prevent it. Add in uncertain TV viewership and increasing costs of marketing rights and the risks escalate for sports sponsorships and athlete endorsements.
  • Athlete’s commenting on off-the-field happenings regarding politics, racial and other social matters are something brands would rather their publicity hawkers don’t do. Because doing so can upset potential customers who disagree with the athlete’s comments.
  • Companies that sponsor controversial sports events, primarily, but not limited to the Beijing Olympic Games, are targets of pressure groups. In the Beijing Olympics case, human rights organizations are targeting sponsors for not speaking out about the lack of human rights in China and Hong Kong and accusing them of disseminating Chinese propaganda; and members of Congress have accused corporate sponsors of seeking profits at the expense of genocide.
  • No brand wants an athlete endorser arrested for off-the-field transgressions with the resulting negative media coverage reporting the athlete’s tie to a brand. But the sponsors of the Olympics, publicly at least, seem content to be associated with the games, no matter in which country and under what type of conditions they are played.

In the sports business, as in society, change comes slowly

But if athletes keep speaking out against the IOC’s awarding its games to totalitarian countries, and sports associations like the WTA are willing to forgo millions of dollars to protect their athletes, change is inevitable and the Beijing Olympic Games just might be the propellant to make it happen.

In mid-November, The White House said it is “deeply concerned” and wants “independent, verifiable proof” of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai’s situation. The United Nations Human Rights Office concurred with the White House statement later in the day.  Then, on November 30, the Associated Press reported, “The European Union said Tuesday that it wants China to release “verifiable proof” that tennis player Peng Shuai is safe and to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into her sexual assault allegations.”
Also, “For the first time since the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute began surveying Americans about national security four years ago, a majority of Americans—52 percent—named China as the nation posing the greatest threat to the U.S. That is up from 21 percent four years ago. Russia came in at a distant 14%—a shift from three years ago when 30 percent of Americans considered that country to be the biggest risk, while China came in second place at 21 percent,” according to a new poll.

It’s safe to assume that NBCUniversal, which will televise the games in the U.S., and its American TV sponsors and the IOC and its worldwide American sponsors are not happy about the results of the poll, statements from governments and athletes, nor the comparison by some journalists of the Beijing Games to the 1936 Nazi Olympics in Berlin.

In my experience, too many PR people suggest a sports tie-in to a client without considering the risks. The current baseball lockout and the controversy about the Beijing Games are there for all to see. In my opinion, off-the field happenings must be taken into consideration when considering a sports tie-in for a client.

What I have been suggesting for many years to clients is not to automatically think of sports as the only or best publicity opportunity. For marketers that want to avoid being dragged into politics, racial and other social matters, there’s an easy solution: Think about none sports tie-ins. Too many PR pros don’t.

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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 can be reached at arthursolomon4pr@juno.com.

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