Ethan Dursteler: The futility of politicians who boycott sports

(Mike McCarn | AP photo) In this Sept. 18, 2016, photo, San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick (7) and Eric Reid (35) kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C.

Earlier this year, Major League Baseball announced they would move the league’s All Star Game from Atlanta due to a controversial voting bill passed by the state’s legislature. Almost immediately, dozens of furious Republican politicians took to social media and the networks to air their frustrations. Some claimed they would not be watching the league until the situation was rectified.

Similarly, in the lead up to almost every Super Bowl since 2016, a demographic of politicians takes advantage of the event’s unmatched publicity to make sure their Twitter followers know that because Colin Kaepernick does not have a job, they won’t be watching.

With many sports venues requiring proof of vaccination in order to attend games, politicians are bound to succumb to their virtue signaling addictions and exploit the situation to impress their base. Many will boycott teams that require proof of vaccination, and others may publicly criticize teams that adopt a more relaxed COVID-19 policy.

Without a deeper understanding of sports business, politicians issuing condemnations might be interpreted by the public as a threat to the continued success of a team or league. While all sports leagues and teams want to make and retain as many fans as possible, even large decreases in fan engagement would not make that big a difference in a team’s bottom line.

In the 2018-2019 NFL season, it was reported that the league made just north of $15 billion. Of that, only 15% came from ticket sales. Gate receipts as a percentage of total revenue continue to fall, even though NFL teams consistently raise ticket prices and sell out their stadiums. Even if every single fan had abruptly stopped attending games in 2019 — an absolutely impossible situation — the league still would have made over $12 billion in revenue. A significant drop off from $15 billion, sure, but still certainly enough to get by.

The majority of the NFL’s revenue comes from TV deals with NBC, CBS, FOX, ESPN and others. This is holds true for the four other large American sports leagues. Year after year, the league makes up over 40 of the 50 most watched television shows. Even if league viewership were to decline by 50% overnight — again, an impossible situation — its games would still be the most watched thing on television by a wide margin. No TV network is going to give up the only thing keeping them profitable. While other leagues are not as critical to the success of TV networks, their media rights remain a highly sought after product able to secure billions every time they become available.

One politician refusing to attend events or turning off the TV, regardless of their influence, will have little impact on a team or league’s success. Statements attacking teams or leagues for different policies are nothing more than political stunts to rile up politicians’ bases. Public officials know this, but because of their inability to say or do anything interesting or substantive within their own profession, they rely on sports to provide them with publicity and a feeling of relevance.

It is true that politicians could regulate sports leagues or take steps to harm them financially, but doing so would require them to infuriate a large portion of the country. According to Statista, 72% of Americans are at least casual sports fans. Liking sports is one of the only things that Americans agree on more than hating Congress — 69% of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing. While taking on a sports league or local team might give a politician a few extra talking points in a primary, it makes them even more unpopular than they already are with the broader American public.

In modern politics, increasingly dominated by big interests and decreasingly representing the views and desires of actual American citizens, a common person trying to reason with an elected official is one of few things more futile than a politician airing their feelings about a sports league. I realize this, but it is important that Americans realize just how much time politicians waste on things of little importance, like sports, instead of things of great importance, like immigration, health care, a broken criminal justice system, a ballooning defense budget and an out-of-control fiscal situation. Politicians would be wise to focus on solving these problems.

Ethan Dursteler

Ethan Dursteler worked as the government affairs and public policy coordinator for the National Football League. Prior to his work with the league, he was a staffer for Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah. He currently provides government affairs consulting to non-profit organizations.

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