Eight years ago this month, Sports Illustrated ran a back of the book story by Scott Price, who had the chance to play then-candidate Barack Obama in a game of basketball. The story showed casual sports fans, who many times are also politics averse, a side of the candidate that they did not know about. That story of course was the first of many where sports and now-President Obama crossed paths on his way to the White House. While it probably pales in comparison to all the other initiatives the Obama camp used for engaging casual voters (social media being one of the biggest), the ability for the candidate at the time to show that he could relate to the casual sports fan was very important. Did it sway the election the following November? Maybe not with huge numbers, but it is hard to think that a President who could make a jump shot (and who has a brother in law in Craig Robinson who was a coach) did not at least influence some people to cast a ballot. The other candidates made the odd NASCAR appearance, Senator McCain went on a few hunting trips, but none embraced a sports fan like President Obama did.
So now as we begin another are primary season, it is interesting to note that at least one Republican candidate will try and embrace those casual sports fans as the Obama camp did throughout his time in The White House. On Friday, Marco Rubio unveiled his targeted campaign ad tied to all things football (a shorter version of the one he rolled out in September), from his love of the Miami Dolphins to marrying a former ‘Fins cheerleader to his passion for fantasy football (interesting to note almost all of the candidates have avoided the legal sports gambling and DFS controversies to date, with the exception of Chris Christie).
Maybe it is because the younger, more athletic demo is still more in the Democratic camp, and that the outgoing Presidency, with programs like “Let’s Move,” did a stronger job of keeping those casual voters in their camp. Maybe Republicans feel that the younger, more athletic demo is not yet worth courting as they try to re-engage an older Republican set and those who are more apt to vote or at least swing their vote. Maybe few of the candidates have an interest in athletics (Carly Fiorina made a misstep last week in saying she was now in an Iowa camp for college football despite going to Stanford, ticking off anyone looking for authenticity), or that given the issues at hand, attending an event would be seen as wasting important time campaigning in other areas. Maybe none are interested in Clemson or Alabama, or the Redskins or Patriots, or maybe even Mike Piazza going into the Hall of Fame just yet. Maybe Daytona will be a coming out party for those still in the race. Donald Trump has never shied away from sports, be it team ownership (a topic which will become hot in California again soon) or golf, but it has not been a central part of any of his talk to date yet.
Football has been a repeated theme for Rubio on the trail, including appearances on sports talk radio and an infamous football event with children in Iowa during which he accidentally hit a child in the face with a football, creating a viral video moment. He also attended Tarkio College in Missouri for one year on a football scholarship from 1989 to 1990, so the casual football play is a good fit, and seems very authentic.
One thing is for sure. The Presidential candidate who was able to court those casual fans in the past few elections did get a nice little boost, and maybe more of a second look when controversy reared its head at least the first time. President Bush was a former Rangers owner, and was able to find home plate more than a few times with a first pitch. President Clinton whooped it up with Arkansas at the Final Four and loved being around athletes. President Obama rarely passes a basketball court without taking a look at the rim. It made sports a talking point when there was not one to engage people, and made them all seem just a little more human, and a little less lofty. It is also a pretty smooth engagement point for consumers who may tire if hearing the same debate time and again. Is sports talk essential given all the goings-on today? It certainly shouldn’t be at the top of an issues list, but it is good to play at the right time, which Rubio seems to have now selected as we head toward Iowa and New Hampshire.
Let’s see if any current candidates follow suit (Bernie Sanders and his roots tied to the Dodgers perhaps?) , maybe as pitchers and catchers approach.