When the Eagles and Falcons take the field Thursday night in front of a primetime audience, ushering in the new NFL season, every player will have a Nike swoosh emblazoned on both shoulders, right above their team’s logo. At some point during the NBC broadcast, an advertisement will air for Nike, apparel partners of the NFL through 2028. It will be narrated by Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who is suing the league, believing that owners colluded to keep him unsigned because he had begun kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality.
You could say that the NFL and one of its biggest partners have made different ideological decisions. Perhaps more accurately, they have made different business decisions. Nike has made the face of a movement for social change the face of their Just Do It 30th anniversary ad campaign. On the other hand, in May the NFL’s team owners walked into a hotel ballroom in Atlanta and voted—nearly unanimously (one owner abstained)—for a policy that would keep that movement out of view of their paying customers on gameday.
That policy has since been put on hold, with the NFL and the Players Association agreeing to work together on the anthem rules. Those talks continued through the preseason, but people with knowledge of the conversations said this week they did not believe a resolution would be reached before the opener, now just hours away. The difficulty in crafting a new policy reflects how polarizing this topic is in our country: There is no middle ground.
Nike, a multi-billion dollar business, made a decision to appeal to a consumer base. It’s the same base that the NFL team owners have deemed less crucial to their bottom line—or at least less likely to walk away—as evidenced by Kaepernick’s continued free-agent status and the passage of a now-suspended policy stifling demonstrations during the national anthem. Toward the end of last season, the league and its club owners committed $90 million to a social-justice platform, funding local and national initiatives addressing the issues for which players were demonstrating. But the vote in May, without the input of the players, eroded the goodwill of that financial support.
“This is fear of a diminished bottom line,” Eagles defensive lineman Chris Long wrote on Twitter in May, in response to the owners’ policy. “It’s also fear of a president turning his base against a corporation.” A few months later, in the Eagles’ locker room after a training camp practice in early August, Long wondered about the decision to value fans or sponsors who strongly oppose players demonstrating during the national anthem over those who support their right to utilize their unique platform to raise awareness for long-ignored inequalities.
“Owners have to decide, do I want to do the right thing and maybe incur a little bit of a relative haircut, or do I want to protect every last dollar, even though I have a billion dollars?” he says. “You are going to lose a couple fans because you were accepting of a lot of your fans. I don’t understand where the big decision is there.”
Long adds: “I think a lot of people have turned off football for the reason of not liking the way they have handled this anthem stuff. [The league is] underestimating that.”
In light of Nike’s campaign, that’s a pertinent question: From a purely business standpoint, is the NFL making the right move? Answering this becomes more difficult because of the echo chamber that is social media, where the President of the United States can rebuke the NFL at any time of day and a single video of a fan burning his Nike gear and cursing Kaepernick can get shared thousands of times. But, as a reminder, going viral rarely results in reaching a statistically significant sample size. The NFL’s declining TV ratings, down nearly 10% from the 2016 regular season to 2017, have been cited by opponents of the demonstrations, ignoring the context that network television audiences were down across the board (plus a host of other potential factors, such as oversaturation and the fact that in a changing media environment television ratings are an increasingly unreliable measure of total viewership).
“If there really is a decline, if TV viewing is off or live attendance is off, I don’t know if the NFL knows which fans are staying home,” says Rodney Fort, sports economist and professor of sport management at the University of Michigan. “I think the NFL might be guessing wrong about a portion of their fan base and why they might be leaving.”
It’s now clear that the NFL is at least guessing differently than one of its major business partners. The day after Nike’s Kaepernick campaign was released, with the slogan, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” Bloomberg reported that the ad had generated $43 million in media exposure, citing an estimate from Apex Marketing Group, nearly half positive and less than one-quarter negative. A Nike spokesperson confirmed that the two-minute advertisement Kaepernick shared on social media Wednesday, featuring other star (and Nike-sponsored) athletes like Serena Williams, LeBron James and Odell Beckham, Jr., will air on Thursday Night Football—as well as during the U.S. Open, Major League Baseball and college football games; she did not reply to a second question, asking if there had been any communication between Nike and the NFL before the start of the campaign. The NFL released a statement from Jocelyn Moore, executive VP of communications and public affairs: “The social justice issues that Colin and other professional athletes have raised deserve our attention and action.”
Two companies looked at Kaepernick, considered their bottom lines, and took very different tacks. It’s been two years since he started a movement on NFL sidelines, and more than 600 days since he last played in a game. The NFL seemed to hope his voice would fade; Nike ensured that won’t happen any time soon.
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