Wednesday, September 27, 2017
You couldn't pay me enough to be the owner of an NFL team right now. I almost feel sorry for them. Even if you're not a fan, by now you've heard about the controversy surrounding NFL free agent Colin Kaepernick, and his decision to kneel during the national anthem last year. You've also probably heard about the President's call for NFL owners to fire players who don't stand while the anthem is played and his prediction of the league's demise if the protests continue. Surprisingly, last Sunday and Monday, some of the same owners who made a business decision to take a pass on Kaepernick despite his quarterback stats (citing among other things, the potential reactions of their fans) have now themselves made it a point to show solidarity with their players during the anthem. The owners are locking arms with players, some of whom are now protesting for the first time.
Football is big business, earning $13 billion last year, and the owners are sophisticated businessmen with franchises that are worth on average $2.5 billion dollars each. They care about their fans of course, and I'm sure that they monitor the various boycotts. They are also reading about lawmakers calling for funding cuts for teams that boycott. But they also care about their sponsors. Fortunately for the NFL (and for the players who have lucrative deals), most sponsors that have made statements have walked a fine line between supporting both the flag and free speech. The question is, how long will all of this solidarity last? There is no clear correlation between the rating shifts and the protests but as soon as there is definitive proof or sponsors start to pull out, I predict the owners will do a difficult cost-benefit analysis. Most teams aren't like the Green Bay Packers, which has no "owner," but instead has over 100,000 shareholders. Most teams don't have boards of directors or shareholders to answer to. Most of these owners used their own money or have very few business partners.
The NFL teams owners' decision to maintain support of the players will likely be more difficult than those of the many CEOs who have expressed their disagreement with the President over race-related matters by quitting his advisory boards (see my previous post ). Those CEOs could point to their own corporate codes of conduct or social responsibility statements. Those CEOs considered the reputational ramifications with their employees and their consumers, and the choice was relatively straightforward, especially because there was a more unified public outrage. The NFL owners, on the other hand, have highly skilled "employees" from a finite pool of talent who have been called SOBs by the President but who are also being booed by the fans, their consumers. The owners can't be fired, and it's very difficult to remove them. Should the owners stick with the players (some of whom are brand new to the protest scene) or should they wait to see the latest polls about what fans think about the leadership of America's favorite sport? Should they fire players, as they probably could under their contracts? The big test may come during a planned boycott by veterans during Veteran's Day Weekend. Perhaps I will be proven wrong, and maybe boycotts will have an effect on what the NFL owners and players do, but I predict the players and owners will want to get back to the business of playing football sooner rather than later. I'll keep monitoring the situation this Sunday and for the rest of the season.