In the battle over NFL player protests Trump wins with the fans, easy

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Harvard Business School is known for its case studies, so here’s one it should assign students asap: You have a product and every time you do a big sale, say on a Sunday afternoon, you alienate anywhere between half to three quarters of your customers. These customers are starting to boycott the product in droves as management appears oblivious to the problem.

What do you think the professors at Harvard might recommend to their students as an appropriate solution to the problem? How about immediately stop pissing off your customers and/or fire existing management. Pretty simple right?

Well, not for the NFL team owners and the league’s management – led by commissioner Roger Goodell – when it comes to the latest controversy involving a bunch of players politicizing the National Anthem by taking a knee during what many Americans and a lot of football fans believe is a sacred ceremony. Instead of telling players to stop – or imploring them to find a better venue for their protest – the vast majority of owners (minus it appears Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones) and Goodell himself sought the politically correct dodge and defended their players’ actions while attacking President Trump for his crude criticism of the pre-game demonstrations.

Yes the NFL will win kudos from the mainstream media for its “defense” of the players’ First Amendment rights, but from a business standpoint, its position on this issue is about as reckless as a Donald Trump stump speech.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at the NFL game ratings: amid these protests, they’re down three weeks in a row. This Sunday has been dubbed #TakeAKnee Sunday on social media, with some teams completely boycotting the anthem, and guess what happened? The viewer boycott intensified as Sunday Night Football’s ratings sank as well.

And if the player protests don’t stop, it’s only going to get worse.

First, for the record, while I believe there are better venues of protest, I have no problem with players taking the so-called “knee” during the anthem to challenge what they believe is police brutality or inequality in general. Many of these players are African-American (the NFL is 70% black) and far be it for me to pontificate with indignation their view of the world.

And by the way, taking a knee is hardly akin to burning the flag, which leftist protestors – many of them white – have been doing for decades.

Likewise, it’s hard for me to stomach the President of the United States using the controversy to score some cheap political points particularly when he should be pushing his stalled political agenda. His crude dialectic while discussing the demonstrations during a rally last week (he called the kneeling players SOB’s and then wandered weirdly into a criticism of the league’s attempts to reduce head trauma among players) is stomach turning, at least for this reporter.

That said, a simple business analysis of the matter will demonstrate just how much the NFL is playing with fire in its support of the player protests. I spent the weekend speaking with sports marketing executives, and while they said they understood why the league is supporting the players for now (“They’re looking to keep peace in the locker room,” is how one NFL marketer described the situation), they also understand the enormous pitfalls of this strategy.

“The first rule of business is never piss off your customer,” another person who runs a prominent NFL marketing company told me. “The league is violating the oldest, simplest tenant of business.”

As proof, this executive – who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he deals with NFL leadership on a daily basis – gave me the demographic of the average NFL viewer, which when you distill the numbers, looks a lot like the average Donald Trump voter. According to data compiled by Nielsen, the NFL viewer skews significantly male: 56% to 44% female. It also skews heavily white: 67% compared to 13.6% Hispanic, 12% black and 6.6% Asian.

Around 70% of all NFL viewers earn $100,000 or less annually in income, so this isn’t the effete fat cat set that I’m describing. Moreover, about 10.2% of NFL viewers are either serving or have served in the military compared to around 8.2% of the general population.

If that’s not enough, consider the following: Players standing for the National Anthem is a relatively new phenomenon; the league understands the demo of its audience, which is one reason why around 2009, it began to encourage players to take part in and stand for the anthem to show their patriotism.

Of course, there are other reasons why NFL ratings are down. Some games suck (like Sunday night’s contest between the Washington Redskins and the Oakland Raiders). More and more people opt not to watch the games in real time, but rather choose to view clips and highlights after the fact on their mobile devices. The plague of chronic head injury or CTE has certainly hurt the popularity of the sport.

But football still has a hardcore base of support, and it’s one that looks a lot like the people who show up to a Trump rally. Yes, there’s lots you can criticize the president over, with his ignorant rant about player protests and his dumb critique of legitimate attempts by the league to make the game safer.

Still, in a battle between the NFL and Trump over the anthem, Trump wins easy with the average football fan, who consumes the advertising, attends the game and buys the league’s crappy merchandise, thus paying the players’ salaries. So it’s about time Goodell and the owners explain to the players that while they respect their First Amendment rights, no one has a First Amendment right to a job.

If the players continue to anger the people paying the bills – AKA the average NFL fan – the job they have now, with all the perks of salary and prestige it bestows, may no longer exist in the not so distant future.