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Volume 21 No. 17
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A controversial choice, but Trump’s influence is undeniable

Photo by: AP IMAGES

This isn’t the choice we wanted to make. We debated time and again about other options and directions in which to go. It was a discussion and decision that split our newsroom unlike any I can remember. There are many elements about this choice that are unfortunate; the biggest being it’s not a positive for the industry we work in and cover. But when pressed to decide who had the greatest influence — positive or negative — on the sports business this year, it came down to an individual outside of sports who had the business on its back foot since he arrived on the political scene in 2015.

For his angry, loud and visceral rhetoric that has divided the sports industry and caused massive reaction, response and reflection, President Donald Trump is SportsBusiness Journal/Daily’s Most Influential Person in Sports Business.

   “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’ You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ …
   “When people like yourselves turn on television and you see those people taking the knee when they are playing our great national anthem. The only thing you could do better is if you see it, even if it’s one player, leave the stadium, I guarantee things will stop. Things will stop. Just pick up and leave. Pick up and leave. Not the same game anymore, anyway.”

Those words spoken by Trump on Sept. 22 at a campaign stop for Luther Strange in Huntsville, Ala., shook the NFL, the league office, owners, players and fans. It had a massive domino effect: Player protests increased; fans reacted angrily, feeling the game was becoming a political platform; owners were divided and on the defensive, torn between supporting players and a unified locker room and angry customers who wanted players and teams to stick to sports and stand for patriotism. Players were split, and Trump demonized those who dared to take a knee or make a stand. Messages were muddled. Fed-up fans abandoned the game; ratings suffered; sponsors like Papa John’s clumsily tried to call for action; and the narrative of the season was dominated by Trump’s tirade. Trump played to his base, and his base took it out against the NFL. But it reverberated across sports, magnifying the actions and responses from other leagues. And Trump’s influence extended far beyond the national anthem:

TAKING ON BRISTOL: Outside of the NFL, Trump’s next favorite sports target has been ESPN. Trump and his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, called on ESPN to fire on-air host Jemele Hill in September, a stance that put ESPN brass on the defensive and ultimately resulted in an overhaul of the network’s social media policy. More significantly, Trump took the lead in painting ESPN as an extreme liberal news source, a characterization that continues to dog the network.

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE: Many Olympic insiders believe the minute Trump won the presidency, L.A.’s bid for the 2024 Games was in jeopardy. Regardless of L.A.’s considerable strengths, Paris was a viable alternative and many International Olympic Committee members had no intention of giving Trump a win. Rather than take a chance on an all-or-nothing vote with Trump in the background, the L.A. bid committee agreed to the rare dual award deal — giving Paris ’24 and L.A. ’28, when Trump will be out of the White House. Meanwhile, Trump’s aggressive verbal jabs at North Korea have clearly ratcheted up tensions in the region, putting the February Winter Olympics under an unwelcome spotlight. Now, many in the soccer community are hoping Trump doesn’t do anything to put the U.S./Mexico/Canada bid for the ’26 World Cup in jeopardy.


First Look podcast, with 50 Most Influential discussion at the 26:04 mark:

STAY OR GO? Even the most innocuous elements like a team’s White House visit have become front-page news and a divisive tool. Whether teams or players go on the traditional visit became fair game for the media and Trump, who, in one example, took his anger out at Stephen Curry’s refusal to attend by withdrawing the Golden State Warriors’ invitation to the White House. Such divisiveness affected teams’ and players’ reputations with fans and the public.

TAKING SIDES: The Trump factor has influenced athletes and executives who are seen as either friendly or antagonistic toward the 45th president, which has divided fan bases and affected reputations. Perceived supporters like Tom Brady, Dana White, NASCAR owners and anyone golfing with Trump have been criticized for seemingly supporting Trump and his policies. Some feel Under Armour’s disastrous financial performance has been, in part, due to CEO Kevin Plank’s support of Trump’s economic policy, which put him in the rare public crosshairs of one of his top endorsers, Curry. On the flip side, Trump’s actions and policies have led to rare, provocative responses from the likes of Gregg Popovich, Stan Van Gundy, Mark Cuban, Steve Kerr and others — their visible and public pronouncements surely not endearing them to segments of their fan base.

OTHER ANGLES: Trump’s influence in golf has been clear, from events held at his courses to his love of the game. He stole the spotlight at the U.S. Women’s Open in July at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., one of his resorts. On the team sports side, many organizations have avoided staying in Trump hotels on the road. There was the impact of Trump’s travel ban and the in-process tax bill, that could have major implications on collegiate sports, logo royalties, municipal bonds and public stadium funding.

BOTTOM LINE: Nothing drove more attention to — and response from — the sports industry than Trump. The amount of media attention was overwhelming. Editors at SportsBusiness Journal and Daily can attest that no single individual had a constant thread throughout the sports business in 2017 like he did, resulting in massive coverage, press inches and points of view. Frankly, organizations were unprepared for how to handle Trump’s verbal spars, and most were downright uncomfortable and afraid to address it. The amount of times a top executive told me before a public interview, “Just don’t ask about Trump,” is too many to count and shows the delicate nature of how hot and polarizing Trump has become.

To the industry’s credit, many did stand up when they felt Trump had gone too far; many refused to let the sports industry be tarred by Trump’s insults, many pulled out proof and examples of all that sports has done for society. But Trump still had the loudest megaphone, and fueled the anger and tension that pervaded sports all year.

In the end, we wish sports was above all this rhetoric and division. We wish the stories of what J.J. Watt, Chris Long, and Doug Baldwin did represented the biggest influencers of 2017, examples of influence that bring us together rather than pushing us apart. Unfortunately, we can’t in good conscience do that. This isn’t the choice we wanted to make.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com

Twitter has been President Donald Trump’s preferred form of communication since before he was elected. Here is a sampling of some sports issues he addressed this year from @realDonaldTrump:

ANTHEM PROTESTS
Trump had taken on Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL in the past, but his Sept. 22 speech in Huntsville, Ala., and tweets in the following days and months in response to NFL players’ acts of protest during the national anthem, ignited a firestorm.

Sept. 23: “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”

Sept. 23: “Roger Goodell of NFL just put out a statement trying to justify the total disrespect certain players show to our country. Tell them to stand!”

Sept. 24: “If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!”

Sept. 24: “NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.”

Sept. 24: “Sports fans should never condone players that do not stand proud for their National Anthem or their Country. NFL should change policy!”

Sept. 25: “So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans. They won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag - they said it loud and clear”

Sept. 25: “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!”

Sept. 25: (Retweet) “@jayMAGA45: NFLplayer PatTillman joined U.S. Army in 2002. He was killed in action 2004. He fought 4our country/freedom. #StandForOurAnthem #BoycotNFL”

Sept. 26: “The booing at the NFL football game last night, when the entire Dallas team dropped to its knees, was loudest I have ever heard. Great anger”

Oct. 8: “I asked @VP Pence to leave stadium if any players kneeled, disrespecting our country. I am proud of him and @SecondLady Karen.”

Oct. 10: “Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change tax law!”

Oct. 11: “It is about time that Roger Goodell of the NFL is finally demanding that all players STAND for our great National Anthem-RESPECT OUR COUNTRY”

Oct. 18: “The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our National Anthem. Total disrespect for our great country!”

Nov. 20: “Marshawn Lynch of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders stands for the Mexican Anthem and sits down to boos for our National Anthem. Great disrespect! Next time NFL should suspend him for remainder of season. Attendance and ratings way down.”

Nov. 22: “The NFL is now thinking about a new idea - keeping teams in the Locker Room during the National Anthem next season. That’s almost as bad as kneeling! When will the highly paid Commissioner finally get tough and smart? This issue is killing your league!.....”

Anthem protests increase after Trump’s speech.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES

WHITE HOUSE VISITS
When the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry said on Sept. 22 that he would vote to skip any White House visit after the team’s NBA championship, Trump responded via Twitter a day later: “Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!”

On Sept. 24 Trump hailed a team that would be visiting: “Pleased to inform that the Champion Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL will be joining me at the White House for Ceremony. Great team!”

The Patriots visit the White House in April.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES

LAVAR BALL
In early November, LiAngelo Ball, the middle son of the outspoken LaVar Ball, was one of three UCLA basketball players arrested in China and accused of shoplifting. Trump, who visited China the following week, said he discussed the arrests with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The charges were later withdrawn, and the players returned to the U.S.

On Nov. 15, Trump tweeted, “Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!”

After the players thanked Trump during a news conference, he responded, “To the three UCLA basketball players I say: You’re welcome, go out and give a big Thank You to President Xi Jinping of China who made your release possible and, HAVE A GREAT LIFE! Be careful, there are many pitfalls on the long and winding road of life!”

After LaVar Ball questioned how much help Trump provided, @realDonaldTrump responded: “LaVar, you could have spent the next 5 to 10 years during Thanksgiving with your son in China, but no NBA contract to support you. But remember LaVar, shoplifting is NOT a little thing. It’s a really big deal, especially in China. Ungrateful fool!”