San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has endured plenty of criticism in recent weeks due to his decision to kneel in protest during the National Anthem, but there’s evidence that the ongoing debate over his actions has boosted his personal brand.
The 28-year-old’s central role in a national debate caused sales of his jersey to skyrocket this month, despite his current status as backup to 49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Kaepernick’s jersey sales rose from 120th among NFL players in mid-August to number one on the NFL’s online story on Sept. 7. Kaepernick has gained more than 250,000 new social media followers in the last 30 days alone, according to data analysis firm Hookit.
While Kaepernick has been criticized for method he chose to convey his message, his $12 million base salary and stable of corporate sponsors remain intact. And his ability to connect with fans is growing by the day.
“From the perspective of his personal brand, the protest has certainly made his brand bigger and more well-known, generating positive interest among some and negative among others,” Jim Andrews, executive vice president at sponsorship analysis firm IEG, told FOXBusiness.com.
Kaepernick’s public visibility has spiked since Aug. 26, when he first took a knee during the pre-game rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner to protest racial and social inequality in the United States. Several NFL players, including Miami Dolphins running back Arian Foster and Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, joined Kaepernick in refusing to stand for the National Anthem during Week 1 of the 2016 season.
So far, Kaepernick’s key sponsors, which include apparel giant Nike Inc., automaker Jaguar and Apple Inc.’s Beats By Dre headphones, have remained tight-lipped on his actions. It’s unclear how much Kaepernick earns annually through his endorsement deals.
While Kaepernick’s brand has become more visible as a result of his public protests, Andrews says the polarizing nature of his actions may make corporate marketers wary of working with him in the future.
“Athlete and celebrity brands are also judged by their appeal to corporate marketers as endorsers and spokespeople. In that case, the protest has had a negative impact, as the vast majority of marketers seek to stay away from controversy,” Andrews said.
Representatives from Nike, Jaguar and Beats By Dre did not immediately respond to FOXBusiness.com’s request for comment on Kaepernick’s protest. MusclePharm, an exercise supplement company that previously worked with Kaepernick, said its sponsorship deal with the quarterback expired in March 2015 and has not been renewed.
Kaepernick has been adamant that the possibility of fines or loss of sponsors won’t deter him from publicly supporting his cause. He has vowed to donate the first $1 million he earns in 2016 salary, as well as all personal proceeds from his jersey sales, to community organizations.
So far, the NFL has declined to fine or reprimand players who engage in forms of protest during the playing the Star-Spangled Banner. League representatives have said that players are encouraged, but not required, to stand at attention while the anthem is played.
In an interview with the Associated Press last week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he doesn’t “necessarily agree with what [Kaepernick] is doing.”
"I support our players when they want to see change in society, and we don't live in a perfect society," Goodell said. "On the other hand, we believe very strongly in patriotism in the NFL. I personally believe very strongly in that."
49ers management, including CEO Jed York, has been supportive of Kaepernick’s right to protest, and the team has agreed to match his $1 million donation to charity.
“As we’ve seen in other cases where individual athletes became a center of controversy, most fans separate the team from the actions of the individual, so there shouldn’t be any widespread or long-term damage to the 49ers brand,” Andrews said.