SBJ/Dec. 4-10, 2017/Marketing and Sponsorship

How big a part are protests playing? It’s hard to say, but …

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f we’re tasked with anything these days, it’s determining the impact of the NFL’s national anthem problem on its businesses.

It’s an unfamiliar landscape: The NFL looks vulnerable for the first time in memory. Ratings are off for the second straight season, and we hear from licensees that sales of NFL-logoed products are down considerably.

Certainly, there’s some red-and-blue state geography in play here. “I haven’t talked to a person from the Northeast who understands how the rest of the country feels about this,” said a longtime NFL licensee, who’s seen double-digit sales decreases this season.

Most of Modell’s stores are in the decidedly blue Northeast, but its NFL business is off 25 percent. “I don’t know whether that’s because of kneeling or not,” CEO Mitchell Modell said, “but I’d like to find out.”

So would we.

On the corporate sponsorship side of things, you tell us how debates over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem could possibly help things.

“Those most vocal are always the most negative,” cautions Elizabeth Lindsey, managing partner at Wasserman, which has NFL sponsor clients Nationwide, Microsoft and Pepsi. “We tell all our clients not to be swayed by extreme points of view, and not to jump to any decision.”

Within SportsBusiness Journal’s annual reader survey, for “Properties/sports you would most want your company aligned with as a sponsor,” the NFL dropped from second in 2016, behind only the NBA, to third this year, trailing the NBA and Major League Baseball.

The NFL looks vulnerable. Many point to anger over player protests during the national anthem.
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We have few incontrovertible insights after 40 years behind a keyboard, but the principal one is this: Causality is always complex. Accordingly, we believe that changes in media consumption, related cord-cutting, oversaturation, a growing awareness of head trauma injuries, and far too much focus on officiating are all contributing factors to the NFL’s problems, along with the national anthem dilemma.

However, every week we’re contacted by people claiming to be organizing boycotts of NFL sponsors. We get regular notices from angry (former?) fans, saying they’ve burned their jerseys and cashed in their long-held season tickets. These plaintive wails seemed to be increasing each week of this NFL season. Not knowing any of these people, and lacking any means to determine whether they’re a radical fringe or a silent majority, we disregarded them — until we unexpectedly heard from a high school classmate who recently gave his season tickets the boot.

Bud Walker is an upstate New York apple grower who’s been an NFL fan since he watched it as a kid with his grandfather. Walker had New York Giants season tickets and a couple of PSLs since their new stadium opened in 2010. But just after the president got involved at the beginning of this season, Walker was horrified. It wasn’t the polarizing issue of standing or kneeling during the national anthem that bothered him, but the incursion of any politics onto the field of play.

Walker’s letter to Giants ownership regarding his decision to walk away from his season tickets elicited what he termed a “form letter” from Giants President John Mara. The letter explained that the “First Amendment right to free speech is one of the most important rights we enjoy.” Walker rejects that notion, at least when it comes to the NFL.

“The First Amendment does not give anyone the right to use the workplace to express their political views,” he said. “What if an airline pilot, in uniform, got on the intercom and droned on about politics? What if an NFL player put confederate flags on his socks and talked about genetic superiority for one racial group?

“The Giants have decided this is OK, but that doesn’t mean they should be subjecting me to their political views. I’m not paying NFL ticket prices ($120 per seat) to come to a political protest.”

So the tickets, and Walker’s longtime NFL avidity, went the way of January Super Bowls. An apolitical friend got Walker’s PSLs and the accompanying tickets. Now, our largely rhetorical question is this: If someone from a blue state cashed in his season tickets simply because of the intrusion of politics, how many more are doing the same based on the far more divisive national anthem issue?

Like Modell, we have no way of knowing, but every day it surely seems like a larger group.

Walker doesn’t think anything will get him back to MetLife Stadium for a Giants game. He’s now indifferent about watching any NFL on TV — a habit of more than 50 years. Still, since Walker has followed the Giants since they played in old Yankee Stadium, we wondered what he’s doing now with his Sundays.

“My brother and sister were in town last Sunday and we went to a dinner theater matinee of ‘Pippin,’” he said. “It was a really good production.”

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com.


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