Sponsors taking their case to NFL on protests
The controversy swirling around players kneeling during the national anthem is taking a toll on business, the NFL conceded, as several major sponsors have contacted the league to express their dissatisfaction with declining TV ratings and political turmoil.
Papa John’s, long connected to the league through its sponsorship since 2010 and an endorsement deal with Peyton Manning, told the league that in-game pizza sales had fallen since President Donald Trump criticized protesting players Sept. 22, leading into the season’s third weekend, sources said.
NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart confirmed that the pizza brand had made such concerns known, and said it was not alone among top sponsors in talking to the league about such worries. Papa John’s head of partnerships, Linda Nuss, directed questions to a spokesperson, who did not reply for comment.
Questioned whether owners at their fall meeting last week had raised the issue of hits on club business, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank replied, “Certainly, feelings have been expressed and felt.”
Another league sponsor, USAA, reportedly said it has been in contact with the league about the issue. Several NFL sponsors contacted for comment for this story did not reply.
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Much of the league’s revenue is contractually obligated, so owners and others are talking not necessarily about a revenue drop, but rather how to manage a crisis that could threaten future business.
“You certainly have sponsors that have raised issues for certain teams. Even though it is contractually obligated, you have to work with those people,” San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York said. 49ers safety Eric Reid, who attended a meeting of players and owners last Tuesday, reportedly noted that players brought up lost revenue and that an owner mentioned sponsorships his team had lost.
York has been perhaps the most outspoken owner in defending the right of the players to kneel to express their political beliefs, even saying, “Our country is more important than a slight economic impact.” York has company among other owners, though some others, like Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, want to remove political distractions from the game.
The question is, with the NFL now taking the position that players have the right to kneel during the anthem, how “slight” will that impact be?
TV ratings are down in most cases and attendance has been spotty in many markets, from many of the California stadiums to Jacksonville. Even local ratings are down in markets like Dallas, where the Cowboys are an institution and viewed as Super Bowl contenders.
The NFL last week presented to owners on reasons for the decline, but according to one ownership source, competition from TV news shows and changing viewing habits of millennials were cited rather than the anthem issue. A league source added that the RedZone channel’s ratings have not risen over the last few years, suggesting that it is not cannibalizing broader ratings.
Whatever the case, the anthem issue created a different kind of atmosphere for last week’s owners meetings. Black Lives Matter protesters organized outside the lower Manhattan hotel where the meetings were held, and two protesters came inside and confronted Jones over his threat to bench players who kneeled during the anthem. He listened to the placard-carrying protesters, one who cited Black Panther Bobby Seale and the other who called Jones’ players $40 million slaves, as reporters furiously clicked photos of the encounter.
It is Jones’ position that lost out among owners, who appear ready to take some business hits, but one source suggested the league is playing the long game.
First, by offering social platforms for players, the league hopes the players may start standing on their own.
“The fact is, we have about half a dozen players that are protesting,” Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters last week. “We are hoping to continue to try and work and get that to zero.”
And with collective-bargaining negotiations expected to start in the next few years, the league does not want to engage in a fierce, emotional battle with players over kneeling.
Several months ago there was an expectation that last week’s meeting would be the one where the NFL began laying out its CBA strategy. Instead, the man who is designing much of that strategy, outside counsel Bob Batterman, did not attend.