Published on November 4, 2020, at 10:05 p.m.
by Bailey Broughton.
In response to the tragic murders of Black Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of law enforcement, brands throughout the world vocalized their support of the Black Lives Matter movement that has swept the nation since the death of Trayvon Martin. Arguably, the organization that has been the most forthright in its support is the NBA. Players, 80% of whom are people of color, showed their solidarity with T-shirts that said, “I Can’t Breathe,” and the league branded court floors with “Black Lives Matter” messaging.
To the aggravation of people who do not believe sports and politics should intermingle, the NBA has long supported its players in their social justice endeavors. It has created a strong reputation based around its advocacy, which has allowed players like LeBron James to double as incredible athletes and social activists.
That’s why it was such a shock to read that the league was ending its sponsorship of Black Lives Matter, seemingly abruptly and due to a decline in ratings.
The original intent of this article was to talk about this decision and how it alienated the NBA’s key public of Black athletes and supporters simply to boost ratings, after conservative media speculated that its endorsement of BLM led to a tank in TV ratings. Without a doubt, this would have been an infuriating and seriously tone-deaf move on behalf of the NBA’s public relations team. The story that was uncovered after research and interviews, however, was much more compelling.
First of all, FOX News and The Post Millennial represented this situation in a false light. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver did not make an impulsive decision to rescind the league’s on-court support of BLM.
According to Dr. Andrew Billings, the director of The University of Alabama Program in Sports Communication, the decision was “not communicated accurately at multiple stages,” which allowed the news media to run with their own versions of the story.
“The on-court sponsorship of Black Lives Matter was only ever intended to be a one-year campaign,” said Billings. “They are not just pulling this partnership away out of the blue.”
Billings continued to explain that players, coaches and avid followers of the league were all well aware that the partnership was only temporary. Therefore, the public relations issue of alienating Black players subsides, since the campaign was only ever expected to span a season. Like all other social-advocacy campaigns, this partnership with Black Lives Matter has a finite, measurable timeline.
It would be misleading to indicate that the NBA has not experienced a recent dip in ratings and revenue, because it has. However, according to Dr. Kenon Brown, associate professor of advertising and public relations at The University of Alabama with expertise in athlete image and reputation management, this can be attributed to a wide array of external factors.
“The NBA has lost $800 million in ticket income alone, as well as another $400 million lost in merchandise and sponsorships,” emphasized Brown.
Brown explained that other professional sports leagues, some of which have not openly supported BLM, are also experiencing a steep decline in ratings in 2020. For example, Brown pointed to the 2020 Stanley Cup, which had the lowest viewership since 2007. The 2020 World Series also had its lowest ratings since 2008.
“There is a stigma attached to BLM,” Brown said. “The NBA is the blackest league that embraced the [Black Lives Matter] initiative and consequently suffered in ratings; however, baseball and hockey have suffered as well.”
Brown and Billings both introduced another explanation behind the decline in ratings: sports overload.
“Basketball fans are not used to watching the NBA Finals in the fall, when it directly competes with collegiate and professional football,” explained Billings. “With baseball, basketball, football and hockey all occurring at the same time, the typical NBA audience is being distributed between four leagues.”
Billings also mentioned the idea that the lack of fans in attendance at games makes them less appealing, as well as the influence of the upcoming election. In 2016, the year of the last general election, Colin Kaepernick made the monumental, polarizing decision to kneel for the national anthem. The NFL experienced a dip in ratings, which many attributed to Kaepernick’s symbolic gesture. However, Billings pointed out that this was a temporary phenomenon experienced by television programs of all types and is typical of media patterns in an election cycle.
“The embracing of Black Lives Matter may be a reason for a decline in (NBA) viewership, but it is not the reason,” Billings said. “It’s hard to accurately estimate what percentage of the drop is due to the league’s support of BLM, if it’s anything at all”
Amidst the expiration of the NBA and BLM partnership, many questions are still raised about the public relations implications. Sure, the end of this campaign was not unexpected … but is allowing it to expire before the problem has been adequately addressed a sign of superficial support? Many brands across the nation came under harsh scrutiny when they would vocalize their support for Black lives, but showed no action to indicate that they are actively working toward social reform. According to Brown, however, this is not the case with the NBA.
Brown explained that the NBA has a reputation for strong social advocacy, and that it has always allowed its players to speak and act freely in political and social realms. According to Brown, the main public relations issue would occur if the league was telling players that they could not participate in protests or voter registration drives — but this is not what it is saying.
“The NBA is going to have to make it very clear in its messaging that the partnership was going to end regardless,” said Brown. “The league will have to continue to amplify its players’ voices in order to counter the ending of this on-court sponsorship.”
In other words, this is a relatively easy “fix.” The NBA has already built a positive reputation for social justice, and this reputation will continue to flourish as long as players’ voices remain unencumbered. The NBA simply needs to communicate what it will continue to do off-court in support of the movement now that its on-court sponsorship has expired.
The way that the news media has reframed this situation to suit a narrative that villainizes Black Lives Matter is the real issue at hand, according to Brown.
“The biggest problem is Trump, his supporters and the conservative media making a correlation between the NBA’s partnership with BLM and the dip in revenue and ratings, while not paying attention to the facts,” said Brown. “The abandonment angle is a catchy headline, and they will use any reason to discredit BLM and the African Americans fighting for equality.”
Working with the news media is an integral part of the job of a PR practitioner, so it is important to be able to recognize spin when one sees it. In terms of public relations, the biggest takeaway from this situation between the NBA and BLM is to ensure that one’s brand or organization clearly communicates with the media. Then, there would be less room for the media to create their own narrative around an unnewsworthy development. Miscommunications like these have the potential to jeopardize the positive reputation of social advocacy that the NBA has spent years building.
According to Billings, such widespread misunderstandings can be conquered if a public relations professional knows how to control the spin that the media places on scenarios. In a media culture that is overwhelmed with competing, polarized narratives, it is very important for public relations professionals to be able to identify and dispute “alternative facts.”