Nike’s new ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick has generated plenty of goodwill from one group, predictable backlash from others, and most of all, plenty of attention for Nike, which is the whole point.
With news that Nike has bought time to run the ad during tonight’s season-opening Thursday Night Football contest on NBC, though, there’s one other group that isn’t pleased: the NFL itself. Kaepernick is currently suing the league over claims he was blackballed in the wake of his protests against American racial injustice. Nike, though, is a massive NFL sponsor, and has recently-extended deal to supply uniforms and apparel that now runs through 2028.
The decision to build a campaign around Kaepernick and then run the ad during the NFL’s biggest moment of the fall has led to some NFL executives comparing the situation to the short-lived ESPN series Playmakers, which the NFL pressured broadcast partner ESPN into canceling after one season. According to theNew York Post‘s Andrew Marchand, the league office was unprepared for this development:
Sources have told The Post the league was caught “off-guard” by Nike’s decision to use Colin Kaepernick in its latest campaign ad. Executives who have worked for the NFL and with the league said that the NFL, behind the scenes, has to be livid.
The league can’t just refuse to air the commercial, either:
The NFL does have an approval process for its advertising, but an NFL source said the Kaepernick ad would not violate any policy. The league was caught “off-guard,” a source said, by Nike’s inclusion of Kaepernick in its latest campaign, but in its statement it wanted to show support.
TV and league executives who have been involved with the NFL for years imagine that the league is “pissed,” to use one official’s term, about how Nike has magnified the anthem debate.
It’s probably best for the league they can’t impulsively ban the ad, though, because that would only magnify the attention further. A slightly similar situation arose fifteen years ago when Playmakers debuted on ESPN, and the NFL was angry enough about the show to essentially force ESPN to stop promoting it during their NFL broadcasts, and then leaning on them to cancel it after a season.
According to Marchand, a former executive sees the comparison as valid:
“It is probably akin to ‘Playmakers’ and ESPN back in the day,” a former NFL executive said. “The difference is they can’t do anything about it, but they can’t be happy about it.”
There are, of course, a few differences. Nike is Nike, its own company with $34.4 billion in revenue over the last full fiscal year. They’re not nearly as dependent upon the NFL as ESPN was and still is. But the litigation might be the main difference. If Kaepernick’s entire point is that the NFL was so pissed at him for kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice that he received a de facto lifetime ban, how would it look if the NFL tried to quash his ability to work as a spokesman for a different company?
Nike has all the leverage here, and the NFL knows it.