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The Ride Never Ends: Sports, Marketing, and Politics (Again) - Ronaldo, Rapinoe, and LeBron

Updated: Jun 21, 2021

“Politics is downstream from culture” is a common notion. It's more accurate to say that politics is fighting about the rules of the culture. It might be even more accurate to say that culture, politics, and marketing are hopelessly intertwined. Culture dictates how we think we should live, politics determine who sets the rules for how we live, and marketing is about trying to make money based on the culture and politics of the moment.

The last week in sports highlights the convergence of culture, politics, marketing, and sports.

Stream the full conversation on your platform of choice here.

Vaccine Mandates or Encouragement

We have managed to politicize a pandemic, and the major cultural institutions are picking a side. We are now a society where masks and now vaccines are highly correlated with political orientation. And now leagues, corporations, higher education, and other organizations are either encouraging or coercing vaccination (depending on perspective).

The NFL recently announced rules for its unvaccinated players.

The rules, which were agreed to by the NFL and NFLPA, outlined that unvaccinated players would still be required to get tested everyday. They would have to wear masks in the facility, face travel restrictions and generally remain isolated from teammates and staff.
Vaccinated players, though, would face almost no restrictions on their daily life and would no longer be subject to daily testing or mask wearing.

Vaccinations (and public health) are now political. Are there two sides?

Vaccinations make us safe and allow us to return to normalcy. Failure to be vaccinated is selfish and based on ignorance. All responsible parties should encourage vaccination.


After a year of questionable communications from the government, media, and public health officials, such as masks aren't needed, and it most definitely wasn’t a lab leaked until maybe it was, skepticism is understandable. In this version of reality, it is reasonable to be concerned about the products and ethics of pharmaceutical companies that are immune from lawsuits.

Regardless, it sounds like the sports world may have different systems in place for the vaccinated and unvaccinated going forward. The problem is this is highly correlated with different systems for conservatives and progressives.

LeBron James

LeBron James is a brand that plays basketball. So after losing in the first round, he changed his number, lambasted the NBA for last year's schedule, and started promoting his movie. What percentage of the attention that basketball receives is collected by Mr. James? Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be enough.

As a side note, Zion Williamson (or family) is also concerned about his brand. This article puts it very plainly.

Some of the New Orleans star’s family members are unhappy with the organization and want the 2019 No. 1 pick to join another team worthy of his star power, according to The Athletic.

“Worthy of his star power,” says it all. The career path for Zion (and Luka, Trae, etc.) requires supporting casts and big markets.

Megan Rapinoe

Megan Rapinoe is now a brand ambassador for Victoria’s Secret. Victoria’s Secret is retiring their “no longer “culturally relevant” Angels. The marketing story is that Victoria’s Secret is moving away from its “sexy” positioning to emphasize accomplished entrepreneurs and advocates.

This is a dramatic change. My immediate reaction is that it's hopelessly inconsistent with the nature of the category, regardless of how the culture is shifting. Does anyone want the same underwear as an aspirational professional or political figure? What underwear does Elon Musk wear? How about the Ruth Bader Ginsburg collection?

But I’m humble about my ability to predict, and I don’t know if it will work. I’m not in the target demo, so maybe Victoria’s Secret management knows something that I don’t. It could be the only Hail Mary play upon which they could agree.

But this story has a brand, a very politically active athlete, and it’s centered on an evolving part of the culture.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo has 300 million IG followers while Coca-Cola has 2.7 million. I believe he has the largest social media (IG) following of any celebrity. When Ronaldo dismisses Coke for water, the world (or at least the market) reacts. It's been reported that Coca-Cola lost 4 billion in market share.

In general, leagues are very careful when it comes to maintaining relationships with sponsors. But what if the offending player is bigger than the league? What if LeBron refuses to go along with some NBA policy? What if Ronaldo continues to disrespect sponsors?

I suspect that something will be worked out. The teams and leagues are rapidly becoming the junior partners to the Superstars.


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