The recent controversy over professional athletes taking a knee in protest during (or before) the national anthem raises serious issues for the sponsors of these events. Brand affinity is one of the strongest value factors supporting the investments that brands make in sports sponsorships. If some meaningful percentage of those attending or watching the event is offended by the political theatre of players and team owners playing out before them, will brands be willing to continue their sponsorship of the team? And if the answer is yes, will those brands expect a price reduction to cover the loss of brand affinity value based on those who were offended?
The financial risk to the billion-dollar sponsorship market goes well beyond what we have seen to date. Two factors may worsen the impact. First, if the knee-taking grows from a couple of professional sports across the entire professional diaspora, the absolute number of offended fans will grow geometrically. And if it spreads even further to college sports and kids’ soccer and Little League, the social reaction will be both pervasive and explosive. Regardless of who is “right” on the merits, brand sponsorships will be caught in a firestorm. Second, free speech in America is based on the right of all voices to be heard, no matter how offensive. While many fans feel that those taking a knee today are morally right and politically correct, others are sincerely offended by what they see as disrespect for our flag and those serving in our military. What happens when others take a knee (or worse) to make a political statement that an even broader audience finds morally repugnant? If the answer turns on free speech, all views must be heard. If the answer turns on who is morally or politically correct, who decides correctness?
Regardless of the relative merits of the underlying debate, this is a slippery slope for sponsors and properties that could quickly become far worse in today’s politically-charged environment. The issue here is not whether brands could or should do more to promote equality, respect for our flag or veterans or some other worthy social cause. There are arguments and avenues for that. The question is whether brands will spend millions of dollars on sports sponsorships where their return depends on how the public assesses the in-venue political statements of the owners and the athletes playing the game. For many sponsors, the answer will be easy—they did not sign up for that kind of risk and uncertainty. They signed up to sponsor sports, not politics or social discourse. They will spend their dollars on other sponsorships that do not include this risk. And in today’s increasingly diverse world of sports and viewing alternatives, other choices are proliferating for sponsors and fans alike.
For those already caught in the vortex, getting out may be more difficult than first appears. Terminating or threatening to terminate a sponsorship over who takes a knee about what could itself create unintended backlash from customers and prospects. The current situation carries much higher risks than dumping a player who does or says something dumb. Quietly failing to renew or exercising an opt out could be one option, but it could take time. For sponsors and properties alike, private constructive dialog about how to eliminate political divisiveness and uncertainty from the sports sponsorship equation may be the best alternative to the current dilemma.