The great disruptor | Brands and sports take sides in the Trump debate

  • Super Bowl shows many brands taking tacitly anti-Trump stance
  • Travel ban could cause player recruitment issues for sports teams
  • But US contribution to Olympic Movement might protect LA 2024 bid

At the start of February, fast-growing sportswear brand Under Armour had its own ‘delete Uber’ moment. It came when the company’s CEO, Kevin Plank, told CNBC that having “such a pro-business President (Donald Trump) is a real asset for the country.”

Within a day, three of the company’s most high-profile stars, including Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, used social media to distance themselves from his comments. The sharpest retort came from NBA star Stephen Curry, who quipped: “I agree with that description – if you remove the ‘et (from asset).”

Plank’s comments also caused uproar on social media, giving rise to hashtags such as #boycottUnderArmour. So rattled was Under Armour that it was forced to release a statement saying Plank’s comments only concerned Trump’s business policies, not his social viewpoints: “We believe in advocating for fair trade, an inclusive immigration policy that welcomes the best and the brightest and those seeking opportunity in the great tradition of our country, and tax reform that drives hiring to help create jobs globally, across America and in Baltimore.”

Under Armour isn’t the first brand to get caught in the maelstrom around Trump’s election. Sneaker firm New Balance also tweeted positively and found its shoes being returned to shops or, in some instances, burned. E-commerce giant Amazon has also faced calls for a boycott, because it carries both Donald Trump and Ivanka Trump merchandise. This comes despite the fact that the company has also received a boycott threat from Trump supporters because Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos said he’d like to send the newly-elected President into space.


Jeremy Edwards, director of content at sponsorship consultancy Activative, says knowing how to respond to a polarised population is likely to be a key challenge for many brands over the next few years. “Some are choosing sides,” he says, “but if they do, they have to be prepared to deal with a social media backlash. Even the ones that try to avoid make overt political statements often find themselves being drawn into the debate through others’ social media comments.”

Despite the risk of offending the pro-Trump lobby, Activative’s analysis of ads at the recent NFL Super Bowl seems to suggest most brands have decided a tacitly anti-Trump position is in their best interests. “The most overt spot was the (banned) immigrants story spot from building supplier 84 Lumber,” says Edwards. But Budweiser’s pro-immigration ad, Audi’s emphasis on gender equality and AirBnB’s ‘We Accept’ ad were all indicative of a resistance to Trump’s values, he adds. So too was Lady Gaga’s half-time rendition of ‘Born This Way’ and Coke’s decision to re-run its iconic diversity ad – which first appeared (to a mixed reception) during the 2014 Super Bowl.

A couple of reasons may explain why so many businesses elected to diverge from Trump’s ‘America First’ script, says Neil Hopkins, head of strategy at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment. The first is that most seem to have determined it is better in brand terms to stay true to their proclaimed principals and values – which generally encompass support for equality and diversity. “You can see this in the Superbowl ads, but also in Nike’s new Equality Has No Boundaries ad, featuring LeBron James,” Hopkins adds.

The second is that the millennial audience so many brands target didn’t vote Trump in. “A lot of brands are more interested in reaching younger audiences than Trump’s main supporter base, which tends to be older,” says Hopkins. “So what we’re really seeing is brands acting partly from a sense of social justice and partly based on their commercial reality.”

The initial response to Budweiser’s ad, an idealised depiction of company founder Adolphus Busch’s journey from Hamburg to St. Louis, suggests brands have called it right. According to Ad Week, there was a flare of negative reactions following a tweet from pro-Trump website Breitbart, including a call to boycott Bud. But this soon gave way to a positive sentiment on social and increased coverage via traditional media platforms. On YouTube, the ad has been seen almost 28 million times, with likes outnumbering dislikes by a factor of three to one.

Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise and co-director of Centre for Sports Business at Salford University, welcomes brands with a progressive attitude to equality and diversity. But he warns them not to underestimate the power of the pro-Trump lobby: “They still represent a large market. So brands need to make sure marginal judgment calls don’t have a disproportionate impact. This is a situation where I see a role for big data, so brands know as much as possible about their consumers. They need to be careful who they antagonise.”


Possibly this line of thinking is already playing into the way brands are communicating with audiences. Edwards points to a noticeable reduction in pre-game Super Bowl advertising in 2017 – which may have been a ploy by brands to avoid getting caught up in a political debate ahead of game night. “By the end of January, only 21 Super Bowl advertisers had released a combined total of 39 ads or teasers, compared to last year’s 33 brands and 59 ad executions (according to iSpot.tv),” he says.

Of course, the Trump presidency is not just an issue for brands. It’s also clear that his slap-happy approach to executive orders has implications for everything from team recruitment and event-hosting to NFL concussion laws and the ongoing criminal investigation into Fifa. For example, his executive order that seeks to block immigration from seven ‘countries of concern’ (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen) is proving to be a headache for sports leagues that recruit foreign talent. Although the order has, at the time of writing, been suspended by the US Court of Appeals, Trump’s threat to rewrite it, or take the existing order to the Supreme Court, creates uncertainty.

It’s a particular issue for basketball’s NBA, where foreign-born players make up about 29 per cent of its playing staff. Some of these are from the seven countries of concern, such as Milwaukee Bucks’ Thon Maker and LA Lakers’ Luol Deng, both from Sudan. In such cases, the question arises – what would happen if either player had to travel to Canada to play the Toronto Raptors? More seriously, perhaps, how will it affect future recruitment policy? It may be tempting for sports teams to avoid targeting talent in these countries to avoid hitting immigration obstacles.


The Trump administration’s policies are also a concern for sports considering where to locate their events. The IOC is in the fortunate position that its next three Olympic events are in Asia – well away from Trump’s sphere of influence. But how will his stance affect their thinking with regard to the allocation of the 2024 summer Games – due to be decided in September 2017? Trump has given his backing to Los Angeles’ 2024 bid, but his comments run directly counter to the Olympic Movement’s position on discrimination – as laid out in its charter. They also contrast with the spirit of Rio 2016, where the Syrian member of the Olympic Refugee Team, Yusra Mardini, was one of the stars of the show. Under Trump’s proposed executive order, she wouldn't be able to compete in a US-held Olympic Games.

Trump critics say this makes it impossible for the IOC to select LA, though the city’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, has tried to distance the bid from Trump’s cause by saying LA “will always be a place of refuge, where the most vulnerable people fleeing war, or religious or political oppression, can find a welcoming home.”

IOC president Thomas Bach has also spoken against a “world of selfishness where certain people claim to be superior to others”. However, the body’s only official comment so far is a brief statement saying it doesn’t comment on the “politics of sovereign countries”. It could duck the issue by awarding the 2024 Games to one of the other two bid cities, but even that wouldn’t be immune to criticism. There is still the possibility that the Paris bid will be damaged if France elects Marine Le Pen as president, while the politics of Hungary’s Orbàn government means the Budapest bid is not beyond reproach.

Interesting will be the stance of the International Paralympic Committee, which took a bold position on the issue of Russian doping of elite athletes. Could we find ourselves in a position where the IOC and IPC disagree over the best place to host their twinned events? Or will Paralympians decide a US-held Games is the best way to further their global strategic goals?

It’s not just the IOC wrestling with the implication of Trump’s politics. The New York and Boston Marathons may find themselves losing competitors due to the proposed executive order, while the PGA Tour has found itself on the frontline of the debate because of Trump’s status as a golf-course owner.

Ironically, the PGA had a run-in with Trump last June, when it moved the World Golf Championship tournament from his course in Miami to Mexico City. In a typically robust response, Trump said he hoped the organisers have “kidnapping insurance”. In a further statement he added: “It is a sad day for Miami, the United States and the game of golf to have the PGA Tour (move) to Mexico. The PGA Tour has put profit ahead of thousands of American jobs, millions of dollars in revenues for local communities and charities, and the enjoyment of fans.”

The PGA still has two major events coming up at Trump-owned courses in 2017 and 2022. Quizzed on the appropriateness of this – given Trump’s outspokenness – the PGA’s approach has been to focus on the venues rather than comments by their newly-empowered owner. Speaking at the PGA’s annual meeting, PGA chief executive Pete Bevacqua said diversity and inclusion are key elements within the PGA’s strategy, but added: “We’re not a political organisation; we’re a golf organisation… These are both great golf facilities that have open memberships and it’s not about an individual, it’s not about politics; it’s about conducting the best championship we can and proving that we are about accessibility and inclusion in the game.”


This line of argument makes sense to Lars Haue-Pedersen, managing director of TSE Consulting, adviser to host cities, rights-holders and governing bodies, who says: “It’s important that sport is guided by values that are about more than just business. But I think things would get complicated if sport became political.”

How, reasons Haue-Pedersen, can a sporting body make a negative value judgment about a democratically-elected president when so many countries don't elect anyone? “There are countries where no one knows what the president thinks, because he doesn’t tell anyone. But that is not a barrier to hosting an event. The moment sport decides to get political, it would find there are no limits to what it is expected to solve,” he says.

Recent history reinforces his point – with events going to Russia (where homosexuality is a crime), China (which is accused of various human rights abuses) and Qatar (criticised for its treatment of migrant labour). In Haue-Pedersen’s opinion, LA 2024 just needs to focus on ensuring it delivers the best possible bid to the IOC.

“America is much more than the Trump presidency,” he says. “He may have polarised opinion, but the country’s brand encompasses so much more than one man’s election.”

As for the IOC, he adds: “I think they are right to take their lead from the UN – in terms of what countries they will work with. Then they need to focus on things that are actually within their ability to control, such as questions of sport governance.”

Hopkins from M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment takes a similar line, saying: “The Trump administration would have to put some pretty high hurdles in place for the IOC to turn its back on the US. If you think about the contribution that the US has made to the modern Olympic Movement, I’d be surprised if that didn't count in their favour.”

For Hopkins, it’s also important to factor in the work done behind the scenes by the IOC and USOC to come up with a commercial deal that suits both sides. “I think the lack of a deal may have cost Chicago its chance of hosting the 2016 Games, but I think LA is now in a good position to host 2024,” he says.


He also believes the IOC may prefer to focus on the positives that come out of awarding the Games. “With certain regressive administrations, they’ve taken the view that sport can enable change,” he adds. “And you also have to take into account that LA and California are not the heartland of Trump’s supporter base.”

Chadwick rightly points out, however, that the final decision about the host city will not just be down to the IOC and National Olympic Committees. “Economic imperatives suggest this will be as much about what the sponsors want as anything else,” he says. “So, the IOC will have to make sure it is listening to their views.”

While Hopkins doesn’t see Trump as being a problem in the context of the Olympics, he says it is hard to imagine a proposed joint bid by the US, Mexico and Canada for the 2026 Fifa World Cup going ahead. “Fifa has talked about welcoming multi-territory bids, but I think the controversy around Trump’s wall makes such a bid structure unlikely now – even though Fifa would probably look positively at it,” Hopkins says. Assuming a schism, that may also put Fifa in the invidious position of having to choose between a US/Canada-led bid and Mexico.

Both Chadwick and Hopkins believe that the seeds of dissension being sown by Trump could also have a negative impact on the major US sports franchises as they seek to grow their international businesses. For Hopkins, there is a risk that the polarised views within the sports may tarnish their brands. “At the last count, six players from the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots team have said they won’t make the traditional visit to the White House,” Hopkins adds. “That kind of division makes it harder for a sport to present a unified brand image.”


There are economic considerations too. Major League Baseball, for example, may have to reconsider its plans to expand into Cuba and Mexico. Already Trump has suggested he may roll back some of the concessions granted to Cuba by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Chadwick also voices concerns surround the NBA’s expansion in China, which may get tangled up in the looming Trump-inspired trade war. “If there is a trade war,” he says, “it’s entirely possible that US sport would be affected. China could easily tell the NBA to pack its bags and leave.” Trump’s threats to rip up the US’s trade agreement with South Korea also raises questions for Major League Baseball.

Chadwick adds: “The US sports business has been built on a kind of progressive free trade model. So I think this new parochialism might have ramifications for the way commercial partners think about US sports brands. I’m not suggesting Trump will bring the US sports business down, but remember that this isolationism comes at a time when China wants to enhance its credentials on the global sporting stage.”


In addition to the above, there are those who also fear Trump may bring his personal agenda to the table in his dealings with sport. His comments about retailer Nordstrom, after it dropped his daughter Ivanka’s fashion line, show that he is not averse to weighing in on organisations when he feels aggrieved. And one body he is suspected to have a grudge against is the NFL.

Over the years, he has lost a court battle to the NFL (1986) and failed in an attempt to acquire the Buffalo Bills in 2014. So one way he may exact revenge is by supporting New Jersey’s ambition to bring legalised sports gambling to Atlantic City. The NFL is against expansion of sports betting beyond Las Vegas and currently has the Justice Department on its side. But if Trump was to decide that sports gambling is a state issue, not a federal one, it might swing the issue in New Jersey’s favour.

Having said this, Trump is not an easy man to read. Some observers have suggested that his presidency may benefit elite sports professionals by reducing the tax on their earnings. He may also look favourably on a federal policy that has seen $4.8 billion of US taxpayers’ money used to fund new sports stadiums like Chicago’s Soldier Field. Obama had been planning to scrap the scheme, but Trump’s emphasis on infrastructure investment may result in more money for venue owners.

Also worth pointing out is that Trump is more of a sports fan than his presidential rival, Hillary Clinton – and may take a benign view of the sector’s need. A reminder that not everyone hates Trump came recently when golfing legend Jack Nicklaus said: “I think it’s great to have someone in the White House who loves the game and wants to be part of it. He will play a little golf, but more than that, he will be supportive.”

The initial impression, also, is that he gets on well with Shinzo Abe, of Japan, and Vladimir Putin, of Russia. That may have value to US sports as they seek to expand their sphere of influence.

What’s absolutely clear, however, is that sports organisations will have to apply clear thinking to any issue that relates to Trumpism. To cite an example, the Irish Rugby Football Union was criticised for booking its team into the five-star Trump International Hotel when it visited Chicago last autumn to play New Zealand. The IRFU, which chose not to back down, said at the time: “The accommodation requirements of the team are purely based on the facilities that are available and if they match the requirements, that’s simply it.” Going forward, organisations like the IRFU will save themselves unnecessary grief if they consider the impact of such decisions upfront.

Rights-holders – like brands – will also have to get used to people politicising issues, even if their decision-making doesn't have a partisan hue. The Royal and Ancient [R&A], for example, recently announced that Trump’s prestigious Scottish course, Turnberry, will not be considered for The Open Championship in 2020 or 2021. Its reasons for doing so are not known, but this has inevitably been interpreted as an anti-Trump gesture in some quarters – a perception inevitably fuelled by the media.

EXTRA: Millennials

Bloomberg says that if only millennials had voted, “Hillary Clinton would’ve won by a landslide”. Among 18 to 29-year-olds, Clinton took 54% of the vote compared to Trump’s 37 per cent. But there is an interesting statistic buried behind this headline figure. Among white millennials, Trump won 48-43, meaning brands need to consider the racial complexion of their consumer base. Also of interest is that California voted 61-31 in favour of Clinton, meaning that an LA 2024 Olympic Games would probably promote the diversity that the IOC advocates.

In 2014 NBC agreed to pay the IOC $7.75bn (€7.3bn) for the right to broadcast the Olympics from 2022 up to and including 2032. This deal compares to $4.38bn for the 2014-20 period and was agreed six months before negotiations were even due to begin. NBC has not been given any assurance that LA will host the 2024 Games, but given that the summer Olympics haven't been held on US soil since 1996, there’s an expectation it will.

In 2015 the NBA signed a deal with online TV platform Tencent reckoned to be worth $700m over five years. This comes in addition to revenues of around $250m a year (from licensing, merchandising etc). Clearly then, a trade war with China would put the league in a vulnerable position. NFL would also like to play a regular-season game in China as a way of kickstarting its revenues – but a trade war might stop that.

EXTRA: Olympic implications?

By Steven Slayford

“I do not want to speak directly about the political situation in the US,” said Tony Estanguet, three-time Olympic gold medal-winner, IOC member and co-chair of the Paris 2024 bid committee at the city’s event to promote the official submission of its bid.

But the presentations preceding the Q and A session at the Musée de l'Homme, from Bernard Cazeneuve, Prime Minister of France, and Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris, contained thinly-veiled references to the newly-elected US president and made clear that Paris believes his policies have given it a valuable avenue of attack on rivals Los Angeles.

“Sport carries universal values and these are necessary now more than ever. We want to build bridges, not walls,” Cazeneuve said, a clear reference to the border wall President Trump proposes to build between the US and Mexico.

Mayor Hidalgo’s presentation invoked climate change, calling it “the greatest challenge of this century” and said the Paris bid was fully aligned with the Paris Agreement, a climate change treaty signed by 194 countries and a pact Trump has vowed to pull the US out of.

“This is led by a sport team and focused only on our bid. We are here to promote our values,” Estanguet continued. When pressed on whether Cazeneuve’s line was a deliberate attack on Trump, Estanguet repeated that the prime minster was simply expounding on the core values of the French bid: “respect, fraternity and solidarity”.

But while Paris insists it has shut out all distractions, there can be no question that it has kept an eye on events across the Atlantic and has sensed an opportunity.

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