As NFL owners and players rushed to defend their right to protest in the wake of President Donald Trump’s criticism, one group of stakeholders has remained largely silent -- the league’s corporate partners.
The National Football League and its 32 teams made $1.25 billion from corporate partners last year, according to sponsorship tracker ESP Properties. The list includes some of the advertising world’s biggest spenders. Visa Inc., Ford Motor Co., Nike Inc., Anheuser-Busch InBev, Microsoft Corp., McDonald’s Corp., PepsiCo Inc. and Bridgestone Corp. are among the league’s top-tier partners and almost all have remained silent on what was possibly the most political and polarizing Sunday in recent league history.
One of the few NFL partners that has mentioned the protests is Under Armour, a company that has already had a pair of Trump-related controversies this year. The Baltimore-based sporting goods company tweeted Sunday that it “stands for the flag and by our Athletes for free speech, expression and a unified America.” Even with such an anodyne statement, apparently crafted for maximum neutrality, the hundreds of replies to the tweet reveal anger from both sides.
“I’d expect most sponsors to stay quiet, at the risk of alienating a significant percentage of their customers,” said Bob Dorfman, executive vice president of Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco.
There’s little incentive for sponsors to pick sides under the best of circumstances. This instance is especially murky. While the anthem protests by players have turned off some fans, others have soured on football for wholly other political reasons -- including solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, the player who knelt during the anthem last year and is currently unsigned by an NFL team.
Fans in favor of and against the protests are sharing the same list of NFL sponsors, calling for a total boycott. Hashtags #BoycottNFLSponsors and #PunchThemInTheWallet are circulating on both pro-Trump and pro-player social media. Some fans tweeted directly at the companies saying they were no longer customers.
Trump said that by walking out of the stadium, and not watching games on TV, fans can force the league’s hand. Implicit in that calculus is the role played by sponsors, which in theory have the financial leverage to force change, though they almost never use it.
“Football is a phenomenon, it is a juggernaut,” Elizabeth Lindsey, a managing partner at sports marketing firm Wasserman, told Yahoo earlier this year. “And it continues to garner the vast amount of fans’ attention and avidity, so it will continue to garner the vast amount of marketers’ attention and avidity.”
When the NFL bungled its initial suspension of Ray Rice over his assault of his then-fiancee, it drew public criticism from sponsors including Campbell Soup Co., Visa, Anheuser-Busch and McDonald’s. All four are still partners with the league, which made $14 billion last year and continues to outpace all other U.S. leagues in TV ratings and media coverage.
Theoretically, if enough people start turning away from the NFL, its partners may rethink the utility of being associated with America’s richest league. That’s a longshot, Dorfman said. “Hard to imagine this affecting the league’s popularity,” he said. “In fact it may make it more popular.”
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