In 1991, the National Football League rescheduled the Super Bowl and the National Basketball Association rescheduled its meetings in 1993 because of Arizona’s refusal to recognize a federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. Two decades later, in 2010, musicians withdrew from concerts and some urged Major League Baseball to pull its all-star game over a controversial anti-immigration policy. A few years later, in 2014, the NFL came under renewed pressure during the 2015 Super Bowl. Host committee members and companies like Delta Air Lines opposed a bill that would allow companies to deny service to gay people.
The comparison between what happened then in Arizona and what happened today in Georgia is a typical example today of how much bolder companies – including professional sports leagues – have become tough political decisions about their businesses.
It is also another example of whether these measures are politically and economically viable.
What has since emerged has been a more random confluence of athletes and their allies that grew stronger and stronger and the coronavirus pandemic, which made more abrupt changes in corporate philosophy less of a chore.
Conservative media and lawmakers have for years condemned athletes who kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial injustices. Vice President Mike Pence put on a show when he dropped out of an Indianapolis Colts game after players kneeled down fairly predictably during the anthem. However, after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis last year, athletes and leagues leaned on protests against racial injustice, making Black Lives Matter’s messages a fixture that may have sparked more ridicule if it had fans like Pence in the US would have given stands to protest.
All of this brings us to what is happening in Georgia. MLB, which refused to postpone its all-star game over anti-immigration crackdowns in Arizona, is now doing so (along with the MLB draft) over voting restrictions in Georgia. This was done in collaboration with Delta, one of the largest employers in the state. Two entities that diverged to some degree in Arizona over the past decade are now united in their cause.
The question is what does it do to their business models, and the impact on the way such issues are handled from now on is enormous, perhaps more than at any point in recent sports history.
There is no question that Arizona’s failure to recognize MLC Day in the 1990s cost the state significantly. Some estimates put it at $ 200 million. And after the state lost conventions and applied to host NCAA basketball tournaments, it recognized the holiday until 1992 anyway.
The difference today is in the pushback. Conservative defenders of Georgian law accuse MLB, Delta and Coca-Cola of overreacting to a pressure campaign using the same elements that gained prominence elsewhere when racial justice efforts took off. These conservatives, including former President Donald Trump, have called for a boycott.
So far, there is limited evidence that such full-fledged boycott attempts are effective, but there is little to believe that they have had any lasting impact. Despite Pence’s strike and Trump’s call for NFL boycotts over kneeling players – along with early signs that they may have impacted the league’s finances, including polls suggesting fans would turn this off – sales of the rose Liga 2017 actually rose by almost 5 percent. And even if you think they had a temporary impact, there’s even less evidence that it affected the NFL in the long term.
Some key differences between then and now are the still gradual reintroduction of fans to the stadiums the president is now (President Biden said he would “strongly support” MLB if he took away the Atlanta All-Star game) and the league that actually leans towards change – as opposed to the NFL, which is trying to gradually massage away the kneeling controversy. It will also be more difficult to gauge the impact, however, as the league’s finances have already gotten out of hand due to the shortened 2020 season (60 instead of 162 games) and the ongoing lack of ticket revenue, with most stadiums still limited Capacity.
It is clear that a lot is at stake. And when there is time to try to force a change in a company’s policy philosophy, this is an ideal opportunity like never before.