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Examining NFL Sponsors and Their Handling of the National Anthem Protests

Sponsors - NFL - National Anthem

For the better part of the last two years, it seems the NFL has generated more buzz for what has occured on the sidelines rather than on the field of play itself.

Opinions on the National Anthem protests vary from person to person. And while there isn’t a lack of unity amongst fans regarding which approach to take, the general consensus amongst most NFL sponsors seems to be that of indifference. Harkening back to last year when the fire that was set ablaze by continued demonstrations of National Anthem protests only seemed to grow larger, many of the NFL’s sponsors took neutral stances on the subject at hand.

Anheuser-Busch, which has a deal in place with the league as the “Official Beer Sponsor” through 2022, said in a statement last year that “while we may not agree on everything, we still believe in the power of sport to bring people together and overcome their differences. We have no plans to end our NFL sponsorship.”

League sponsors Bose and Ford expressed similar viewpoints as Anheuser-Busch, taking the approach of open-mindedness towards player protests even if they didn’t necessarily agree with them.

Many of these sponsors have been mainstays within the NFL. Their decision to go with a more neutral, non-confrontational route keeps them in the good graces of both the league and the portion of the public who is either neutral or for the protests.

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Two league sponsors of note, Nike and Pizza Hut, come into the discussion with completely different backgrounds.

Last week, Nike unveiled Colin Kaepernick in the latest installment leading up to the 30th anniversary of the “Just Do It” campaign. After Nike’s commercial spotlighting Kaepernick’s addition to the company went viral, it has generated reaction from all across the sports and political landscape including the POTUS himself.

Nike’s new blockbuster campaign showcases its beliefs towards freedom of demonstration and the values of athletes rising above the sports themselves. Amid all the hype and social media buzz, however, Nike and the NFL are put in a very precarious situation.

With the two sides agreeing earlier this year to an eight-year extension that locks Nike in as the game day and sideline apparel supplier through 2028, it does pose the possibility for a contentious relationship moving forward. With Nike airing a condensed version of the Nike-Kaepernick ad during last Thursday’s season opener and throughout the first weekend of NFL action, the intensity surrounding the apparel giant’s standing with the NFL will only increase.

SEE MORE: What Goes Into Executing Sponsorships at the Olympic Games

In response to Nike’s ad, Jocelyn Moore, the NFL’s president of communications and public affairs, released a statement last Tuesday: “The National Football League believes in dialogue, understanding, and unity. We embrace the role and responsibility of everyone involved with this game to promote meaningful, positive change in our communities. The social-justice issues that Colin and other professional athletes have raised deserve our attention and action.”

Kaepernick’s actions of kneeling during the National Anthem has certainly caused an influx of discussion of civil liberties as well as the place that politics should or shouldn’t hold in professional sports.

If Nike is a sponsor coming from a place of supporting athletes amid social protests and political divide, Pizza Hut is looking to step out the shadow of a sponsor who took the exact opposite approach.

In place of Papa John’s, Pizza Hut takes the reins for its first season as the “Official Pizza Sponsor” of the NFL. For Papa John’s, its place within the NFL disintegrated rather quickly after Papa John’s CEO “Papa” John Schnatter blamed teetering sales on the lack of TV viewership during the 2017 NFL season.

The lack of viewership was, in Schnatter’s mind, due to the controversy surrounding NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem. This declaration by the company’s CEO, coupled with company tweets that simultaneously backtracked on Schnatter’s comments while also doubling-down on them, led to the pizza giant to be alienated by fans that were both for and against the National Anthem protests.

Thus, with Pizza Hut now in the driver’s seat, many have speculated how it will pivot away from Papa John’s PR nightmare when looking to create positive momentum. Pizza Hut’s Chief Branding Officer Marianne Radley insists that fans will be at the forefront of the pizza chain’s focus.

SEE MORE: UFC Adds New Category to Sponsorship Menu with Trifecta Nutrition Pairing

“Our focus has been on how we do things differently than the previous sponsor and we felt firmly that the fans had to be the north star. How do we bring that excitement to them and bring them closer to the NFL?” Radley said. “This campaign is about making fans happy and selling a ton of pizza.”

Echoing Radley’s comments is Zipporah Allen, the chief marketing officer of the pizza chain. Allen is in tune with Pizza Hut’s communication strategy as she emphasizes the good that the company can do moving forward while also strategically avoiding mention of Papa John’s past follies.

“We really think about what we can do uniquely as a brand and what experiences we can bring to the fans,” said Allen. “Our strategy really is about the fan experience in the home. Our job is to kind of bring people together in that moment and make it more fun and entertaining.”

This systematic perspective of Pizza Hut brings the entire landscape of NFL sponsors into focus. In the NFL today, whether you are Nike, which is taking a firm stand in support of player expression and freedom of speech, or you are Pizza Hut, which is looking to distance itself from poor category association due to a former sponsor, it is more important than ever to know your communication to the public regarding the social unrest that is bound to continue as the National Anthem protests do.

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According to Jim Andrews, a recognized expert and consultant within the sponsorship industry, he sees the National Anthem protests as more of a longer-term situation to monitor for NFL sponsors, rather than a quick-fix scenario.

“I don’t see a large overall short-term impact for NFL sponsors who don’t get involved to the degree Nike has,” said Andrews. “In situations like this, you will have a relatively small number of people who are moved to take some action either in support of or against sponsors.”

“However, in the longer term, the anthem issue and the host of other challenges facing the NFL and the sport of football are — or should be — of great concern to sponsors. No single issue is going to bring an immediate halt to fan interest, but football seems to be in a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ situation, and sponsors looking more than a few years out must be considering all their options.”

Whether it is saying a lot, saying a little, or nothing at all, NFL sponsors need to effectively communicate where they stand.

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