The Slippery Slope Of Athlete Activism

SLRG President Jon Last reflects on how recent athlete activism and social commentary are creating sensitive challenges for sports marketers aligned with these athletes.  Sound marketing research can certainly help guide strategy.

The annals of sports marketing history are rife with brand crises brought about by spokesperson scandals and inappropriate conduct. Go back just a few weeks for the swift eradication of multiple brand relationships with Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte for the latest in a long line of challenges. “Athletes gone bad” is certainly nothing new for sports marketers. Morals clauses have become standard practice for endorsement contracts.

Firms like ours have been called in to conduct extensive marketing research on the front end of potential deals to assess proper athlete-brand fit among the target market. We’ve also conducted research to assess potential brand damage and impact on the marketability of athletes after they run askance of the law or engage in questionable behavior. Needless to say, much has been written and much has been contemplated by brands seeking to utilize athletes as ambassadors. Thoughtful best practices have been developed, and many a crisis PR firm and research company have been invited to the table to strategize on the optimal course of action in handling these situations.

But as the NFL schedule kicks off (Full disclosure, this post was written prior to the opening games.), much of the conversation on sports talk radio and social media has surrounded the “pre-game actions” of a particular San Francisco 49ers quarterback and the related comments of USA Hockey and Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella. I’ll leave the political commentary to others.

But instead, all of the banter surrounding what is or isn’t appropriate behavior raises a more difficult question for sports marketers: How does one react to an athlete endorser who takes a controversial or oppositional position on a social or political issue? Will these recent events and conversations set about broader behavior clauses in endorsement contracts? To what extent will and can brands activating through athlete endorsement need to consider the political ideology of their endorsers at the same time that they are looking for any prior indiscretions? How should brands react when an affiliated athlete speaks out on political issues, if at all?

The answers to these questions vary based on a brand’s sports marketing objectives, knowledge of customer attitudes and tolerance for risk. If it is only after the consummation of the relationship that it becomes apparent that a brand’s persona or corporate philosophy is at odds with the stance taken by a particular athlete, there’s damage control to be done. Yet, how to activate that damage control isn’t as clear cut as in a morals clause breach, because as the current situation illustrates, there are potential customers out there that may have vastly different opinions. One needn’t look beyond coverage of the current U.S. Presidential election campaigns for evidence of how divided and polarizing public opinion has become.

There’s also the old “any publicity is good publicity” adage. Surely, brands looking to get noticed at any cost might seek out athletes who have shown a propensity to speak out or evoke controversy. One can argue that Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch both saw their stock as endorsers rise, not only based on their on-field success, but on their propensity to take a stand. Just a few short months ago, we lost the legendary Muhammad Ali, who while universally revered in his later years, was clearly a lightning rod for public debate during the early days of his career.

In many ways, the present era of ubiquitous media and greater appetites for 24-7 accessibility to athletes has brought this situation upon ourselves. Juxtaposed against Charles Barkley’s famous advertising assertion that he did not want to be a role model were outcries of criticism directed against the likes of Tiger Woods and Lebron James for not leveraging their celebrity to be more vocal on social issues.

So what do we really want as marketers and fans? Our research has often revealed that sports draws great power as a marketing vehicle in that it is a welcome escape from the ever-present barrage of social commentary. Sports joins people from all walks of life, blind of their political leanings, around a common affinity for a favorite team or athlete.

Concurrently, we are in a “post Barkley” era that doesn’t always make it easy for athletes to mask their point of view, and in many ways demands a more holistic understanding of them. This new reality, as amplified by the recent conversations surrounding Colin Kaepernick and Tortorella will raise new questions for sports marketers and I suspect new demands on marketing researchers like myself, to seek the answers.