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When leagues speak on social issues, people listen

Sports leagues don't often break out the big stick, but when they do, people listen.

For the majority of their existence, sports leagues have acted in an apolitical manner that is in tune with their need to appeal to the broadest of bases for financial success. Given their franchise members importance to communities that represent a wide swath of views across the nation — and in some cases internationally — a vanilla approach has served to make sports one of the last bastions of communal activities that draws interest and revenue from all demographics. For that reason, it’s noteworthy when leagues make a concerted effort or public statement in response to issues more commonly discussed in the political realm.

When the NFL raised objections to a Georgia bill that the league deemed to be gay discrimination and threatened to withhold Super Bowls from the state in the future, the governor listened and promptly vetoed the bill. A similar situation is occurring in the state of North Carolina as the NBA has voiced concern about a recent bill passed into law that has also been described as anti-gay.

The Georgia and North Carolina situations are unique in that the leagues have pending business interests on an organization-wide scale in the coming years. The NBA plans to host its next all-star game in North Carolina and with the Atlanta Falcons opening Mercedes-Benz stadium in 2017, the league’s traditional awarding of new venues with a Super Bowl shortly after opening, created a need to get in front of the issue.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The NCAA took their own stand a year ago when the Final Four was being held in Indianapolis as the state of Indiana passed its version of a law in the same vein as those opposed by the NBA and NFL. While Indiana and Georgia have heeded the warnings of the leagues and other businesses, it remains to be seen whether North Carolina makes a similar move.

While public sentiment and changing generations certainly provide the leagues firmer ground to take these stands, there’s still considerable risk of alienating a portion of their consumer base and thus losing out on revenue from those fans that don’t agree with the leagues’ positions. However, that’s a risk that leagues have historically taken, in some part because not taking a stance could damage the league and their brand even more. Whether it’s MLB welcoming Jackie Robinson and breaking the color barrier or the NBA removing an owner for making racially charged statements, hot-button political issues sometimes produce a league response that has a greater impact due to its infrequency.

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