Are outspoken athletes making sponsors nervous?
Are brands uneasy with the more outspoken, socially conscious athlete?
These athletes have been showered with applause from many quarters for the last few years as they’ve broken free of the decades-long reticence players long exhibited. But Adidas North America President Mark King sparked waves last week at the CAA World Congress of Sports when he said, “To me, it will hurt the athletes.
“We try not to be in social issues, though we are moving toward that because we have to,” said King, who oversees perhaps the biggest turnaround story in the apparel and sneaker industry. “But we certainly won’t associate with athletes that are going to cause our brand something that we don’t represent and something we don’t stand for. At the end of the day, I think it will significantly hurt athletes in terms of endorsements.”
King met with instant resistance on his panel from CAA Sports Co-Head Michael Levine, who represents scores of athletes, especially NBA players who have been particularly out front in expressing opinions.
“I can’t disagree more,” he said.
But King is not alone. Eric Bechtel, founder of marketing agency IdeaQuest, said brands are increasingly nervous about athlete outspokenness.
“Brands we work with that are engaged with athlete marketing are doing extra diligence to ensure that their brand values align first and foremost and certainly are more cautious before investing millions of dollars on rights, production and media spend to avoid potential issues that can affect any campaign due to a brand partner’s social activism,” he said. “Smart brands that understand the upside to a synergistic endorsement relationship also realize there is certainly a tipping point given the world that we live in today and, in my opinion, must do their homework upfront.”
Of course, at a time when a single tweet on an issue can spark a firestorm, even the best homework is for naught. One source said a large insurance company canceled a photo shoot with an athlete shortly after he made outspoken negative comments about President Trump.
The 2016 election and the ascension of Trump has changed the equation in many ways as partisan politics are now toxic and seep into almost any issue. Trump himself has chimed in on Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the national anthem to protest police violence.
“I had athletes who backed Obama, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and in a reasonably public way, and there was not great fallout from it,“ said Leigh Steinberg, who has represented athletes, primarily football players, since the 1980s. “Today we have the most emotional and fractionalized time I can remember where passions are running so high that there is such a degree of bitterness and anger.”
For years, athletes went by the credo established by Michael Jordan, who reportedly replied, “Republicans buy sneakers too,” when asked why he did not endorse a Democratic candidate. The advent of social media and the nastiness of the political environment has changed that paradigm. The ease of platforms like Twitter and Facebook, combined with an outrage culture, have amplified athlete voices.
But Jordan’s maxim is still valid.
“A product looking to appeal to 100 percent of the market might look askance at someone taking a position,” Steinberg said.
Dominic Curran, CEO USA of sports marketing agency Synergy, added companies should be careful that athletes are synonymous with their brands, while at the same time not turning them into corporate robots.
George Raveling, Nike’s global sports marketing director with a long history in basketball, questioned whether Adidas’ King had data to support that social activism harms endorsement value.
“Did he have data to support that?” Raveling asked of King’s comment. “Nike’s data would not support they are losing sales” when its athletes are outspoken.
King did not respond to emails seeking comment following the panel.
Raveling worried that the message sent is that athletes will have to choose between doing good and making money.
“I would hate to think we have evolved into a society where value judgments are going to be based on monetary expectations or rewards,” he said.