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So You Sponsor Colin Kaepernick, Now What?

Ad Age, August 31, 2016

By George Slefo

NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has effectively put his sponsors in a quagmire with his controversial decision to remain seated as the national anthem played during last Friday's preseason game against the Green Bay Packers.

The 49ers QB told NFL media after the game, "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way."

"If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right," he said.

Brands that sponsor Mr. Kaepernick include Apple-owned Beats and Electronic Arts, which showcased the QB in a widely applauded commercial for its Madden franchise last year.

Jimmy Smith, chairman and CEO of Amusement Park Entertainment, an ad industry vet and outspoken advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement, believes it's unlikely Mr. Kaepernick will be dropped by Beats.

"They aren't going to drop him," Mr. Smith said. "It would be hypocritical for a brand like Beats to drop him because they have a guy like Dr. Dre, who actually did a record called 'F*** the Police.' "That's their rebel," he added. "The roots of that brand is Dr. Dre and Dr. Dre is a rebel from all the way back in the day. He knows all about protesting what he feels is injustice. I would be surprised if Beats drop him."

An Apple spokesman who represents the Beats brand did not respond for comment.

Meanwhile, an EA spokesman said it would update its recently released video game Madden 2017 with commentary from Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis to acknowledge Mr. Kapernick's action. When asked if EA would still include the QB in future commercials, the spokesman declined to comment.

"As far as Madden, that one is a little trickier," Mr. Smith said. "They are probably discussing whether to drop him and I would say it is 50/50."

EA's endorsement could be problematic for some who see Mr. Kaepernick's move as being disrespectful to the military, as the company is also the publisher of the popular Battlefield franchise, a video game that typically involves American soldiers killing terrorists.

Jim Andrews, senior VP at IEG, a sponsorship trend researcher, said brands will most likely keep quiet and monitor the situation.

"There is nothing forcing sponsors to come out and say we support him or we don't support him," Mr. Andrews said. "They don't have to start a new campaign and they don't have to put him in a new ad. But if I was one of those brands, I wouldn't want to inject myself into the situation."

"You don't want to be seen as disassociating yourself because it could be misconstrued," he added. "Basically, he is a very polarizing figure right now and in general, in marketing for most companies and brands, polarizing is not a good thing."

It's no secret that Mr. Kaepernick's career has been on a decline since he exploded onto the scene just three years ago. Today, he's currently battling for a roster spot. "This would be a different situation if this was Tom Brady or someone who was at the top of their game," Mr. Andrews said.

Mr. Kaepernick will start Thursday in the 49ers final preseason game, which is also regarded as a game where the regular season starters do not play.

As for how his protest will affect the 49ers' brand, Mr. Andrews said most fans are understanding. "It is an unavoidable situation for them," Mr. Andrews said. "If they interfere with his decision than they will come off as being against freedom of speech."

Although much has been made about Mr. Kaepernick's decision to remain seated, a similar event took place in 2004, when MLB slugger Carlos Delgado did not take the field during the seventh inning stretch for the playing of "God Bless America," something most teams adopted in the wake of 9/11.

"At the end of the day athletes who speak out aren't speaking out because they care whether a brand is going to stand behind them or not," Mr. Smith said. "They are doing what they feel they should be doing, what they feel is right in their heart, regardless of who is standing with them or who isn't."