As the #TakeAKnee controversy continues to build steam on social media, emerging as one of the biggest sports stories in recent memory, it’s hard to imagine any faction emerging a winner. And while many brands have chosen not to make a statement, a few — notably Nike and Ford — have.
Besides the backlash from the ever-tweeting President Donald Trump, it has also provoked threats of a boycott from Trump’s strongest supporters (who also happen to be some of football’s biggest fans.) Mike Lewis, associate professor of marketing at Emory University, who studies fandom at Emory Sports Marketing Analytics, tells Marketing Daily the National Football League is venturing onto “dangerous” turf.
Q. The NFL took a strong stance on this, and it may cost them some viewers, who are threatening to boycott. Is there an upside? Will it gain any fans?
A. I’ve done interviews in the past where I’ve talked about the NFL being more or less bulletproof, with issues like domestic violence and concussions. This strikes me fundamentally different. I’ve done a lot of research into the nature of fandom, and it’s a really intense relationship, built over a lifetime, even over generations.
So they may lose fans as a result of this, but they won’t gain new fans, not easily. Football fans are not casually acquired.
Q. So is there an upside?
A. I’m not sure there is a soft landing. Thinking about Dallas Cowboys owners Jerry Jones kneeling and then standing with the team — is that a kind of a compromise? Can the NFL gently take a step back and begin to tell some kind of story that meets fans halfway? Maybe they can.
Q. Did it surprise you that the NFL — along with owners and coaches — took such a strong stand of solidarity with players, even though they knew it would enrage many fans?
A. I don’t want to be in the business of inferring that I know what they were thinking. But let’s be clear: Football players are the NFL’s product. Football is nothing without players. Between 70 and 75% are African American. And owners have personal relationships with players, while fans are more abstract. So no, it didn’t surprise me. But I’m sure they did so considering that this could go very wrong for them.
Q. How so? What’s the biggest risk you see?
A. Let’s try and connect the dots this way. On one side of the political landscape is a candidate who referred to many of these angry fans as racist, as deplorables. Now, my team seems to be lining up on the left. Does that mean they are calling me deplorable? Suddenly, everything changes. Why am I going to be a fan of an organization that doesn’t like me? If a marketer makes a consumer feel bad, he or she is entitled to those feelings. It’s not up to anyone else to judge these reactions.
Q. Why is that different than other NFL controversies?
A. You may have disagreed with the NFL about the way it handles domestic violence or concussions, or what it did in Deflategate. But that’s very different than saying something that sounds like, in effect, “The NFL doesn’t like people like me.”
Q. Nike and Ford, who made statements supporting athletes who chose to kneel, are risking backlash, too. I’m seeing plenty of #BoycottNike tweets. Would it be better to say nothing?
A. For a company like Nike, it’s a balancing act. You can make an argument that Nike is a brand built on African-American athletes — Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Tiger Woods. If I’m Nike, looking at this as a cold business problem, I’m going to line up with my suppliers.
Q. Do you see any side “winning?”
A. No. Sports are about escape and passion. The last place the NFL wanted to be, I’m sure, is dragged into the middle of the culture wars, with so much animosity on either side.
Q. Will it have an impact? Boycotts are notoriously ineffective. Do you see the NFL losing out, long term?
A. I can’t gauge that yet. My work takes a lot of data into account — season ticket sales, viewership, box office revenue, social media and the ability to charge higher ticket prices. So I’ll wait to see what happens.
But the NFL is being drawn into a much larger conflict. Sports brands dwarf all other brands — the relationship someone has with a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers, for example — is unlike any other. It’s almost more like a personal relationship than a brand relationship.
I know I sound pessimistic about the fallout.
Q. Isn’t it possible to be optimistic? Couldn’t we make the argument that, as divisive as this is, football fans love football players, and as more and more athletes make their personal case for #TakeAKnee, they’ll win over those who are angry?
A. It’s possible. But right now, there isn’t even a neutral channel for communication. You have one side listening to MSNBC, and the other tuning in Fox News and Breitbart. I don’t think they’re listening to each other.