Sports and the business of sports are as far apart as movies are from Hollywood and music is from the recording industry.
Consumers enjoy the final product. But executives maneuver through laws and regulations surrounding their enterprises.
So the suggestions that sports and politics don’t mix is wishful thinking, an earnest yet unrealistic yearning to keep the fun & games separate from real-life matters. That’s possible within the confines of playing surfaces where competition occurs, but not in the headquarters and boardrooms behind the sporting activity.
NASCAR fully understood the concept last year when it joined a slew of organizations condemning Indiana’s “religious freedom” law. The racing body said it was “disappointed by the recent legislation” and “will not embrace nor participate in exclusion or intolerance.”
But NASCAR took its foot off the gas regarding North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom law” that has drawn concern from the NBA, NCAA and scores of other businesses. Despite the controversial measure being in the news for a month, and Charlotte serving as the NASCAR’s nerve center, we didn’t hear a peep from the organization until last week.
“We take the position that any discrimination, unintended or not, we’re on the other side, we don’t like that,” chairman Brian France told the Associated Press. “We are working, including myself, behind the scenes.
“We’re not a political institution; we don’t obviously set political agendas and write laws. But to the extent we can express our views to policy makers – in this case, North Carolina – we will and we do.”
The best way to express a stance is by speaking with your money, not your mouth.
PayPal announced it was canceling a $3.6 million investment in North Carolina due to the state’s removal of anti-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and a requirement that transgender people in government buildings and public schools use bathrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates. The plans for a new global operations center call center that would create 400 jobs will proceed in a less-hostile state.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver also understands the power of pennies (multiplied many times over). Initially he called North Carolina’s law “problematic” for the league, slated to hold the 2017 All-Star Game in Charlotte. However, he believed that the mounting outrage could have a greater effect than ultimatums and lead to change. He said there was no need to make a decision with the game 10 months away.
But Silver made the NBA’s position plain last week: “We believe a change in the law is necessary for us to play in the kind of environment that we think is appropriate for a celebratory NBA event,” he told the Associated Press, though he declined to set a deadline for pulling the game because “the people allied with us” don’t believe that’s best for the situation at this time.
Consider the NBA All-Star Game as a carrot, tempting North Carolina to move forward instead of backward. Or a stick, threatening to whack the state further.
Scores of entertainers, businesses and conventions already have canceled deals. More than 120 companies have signed a letter protesting the law. Governors and mayors in New York, Vermont, Washington and California have banned non-essential government travel to North Carolina.
Major sports organizations can’t sit out this public debate, not with the spotlight they attract and the punch they pack.
Charlotte Motor Speedway hosts one of NASCAR’s biggest races annually on Memorial Day weekend which – combined with the All-Star Race the prior weekend – generates an estimated economic impact of $230 million. The Charlotte Hornets have estimated a $100 million economic impact from the All-Star Game.
Does the state really want to forgo such substantial principal for such a questionable principle?
Big-time sports showed Arizona the light, twice. The NFL took away the 1993 Super Bowl because the state refused to make Martin Luther King Day – already a national holiday – an official state holiday. “I do not believe playing Super Bowl XXVII in Arizona is in the best interest of the National Football League,” then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. “Arizona can continue its political debate without the Super Bowl as a factor.”
Penn State, Notre Dame, Miami and Virginia backed away from invitations to the 1991 Fiesta Bowl and the NBA put a moratorium on awarding All-Star games to Arizona. “It just doesn’t seem to be a place that we would find particularly hospitable,” then-commissioner David Stern said.
The Grand Canyon State wised up two years ago when a discriminatory “religious freedom” bill awaited the governor’s signature.
With the business community in arms about possibly surrendering the 2015 Super Bowl – and forsaking the $500 million in commerce it would bring – Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the measure. “We were talking about losing the Super Bowl; can you imagine the economic impact?” Sen. John McCain told Politico. “We saw that movie before (and) it took us a long time to recover from that.”
Of course, legislatures are free to write bills as they see fit. But discriminatory laws can unleash consequences from the business community.
Some fans wish this wasn’t true, but sports are a large part of that community.
And business and politics go hand-and-hand.