As our national anthem continues to be a hot topic in sports circles and beyond, a new twist has emerged.
Last Friday night, the head of a fast growing global sport nearly canceled an event during the season’s home stretch because of the way the arena was handling the presentation of our nation’s colors for the singing of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
The incident in Charlotte says a lot about our country’s political climate. And it shows again, but in a different tact, the value of boldly standing up for what you believe in…which is not always easy to do in times when taking great offense is a high-level sport unto itself.
First the facts.
The PBR Built Ford Tough Series was coming into Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena fresh off a high.
The previous weekend in Springfield, MO, the PBR on CBS had been Sunday’s highest rated non-NFL sports programming. Professional bull riding actually drew more viewers than the PGA’s BMW Championship at Crooked Stick (with Dustin Johnson leading the final round) as well as Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open Finals. On September 11, a dirt-under-the-fingernails sport with distinctly American roots, followed by the kind of people who fly the stars and bars not only on days of national mourning, was more popular than two traditional blue-blood games.
The cowboys –American icons in many ways – and the bulls were now in Charlotte, getting ready for 8-second bursts of dirt-kicking mayhem.
PBR events typically start with a generous amount of booming pyro, a highly patriotic presentation of our nation’s colors, and a non-denominational prayer. The gas cans were already sitting on eight inches of dirt laid where the Charlotte Bobcats play. But the unfurling of Old Glory was in jeopardy. Arena management had stopped the U.S. color guard at the security gates. The building would not permit any guns in the venue. The armed federal agents representing US Customs and Border Protection could relinquish their weapons and enter. Or they’d be turned away.
PBR boss Sean Gleason would have none of this. These uniformed federal law enforcement agents – a familiar presence at PBR events – were performing official duties. By law, they’re to be armed; further, anyone getting in the way of the performance of these duties is subject to arrest.
After 90 minutes of negotiations, as the crowd was filing in to see America’s original extreme sport, and while these members of the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security waited outside in the muggy North Carolina night, PBR issued an ultimatum. The event would be cancelled if the American flag was not properly presented by the color guard familiar to the cowboys and fans.
Fortunately, a compromise was struck. A Charlotte police officer escorted in the nine armed agents. The start of the Charlotte Invitational was only slightly delayed. To the faithful waiting to see if reigning World Champion J.B. Mauney, who lives 50 miles up the highway, could catch young phenom Kaique Pacheco, star of the new PBR Netflix documentary, “Fearless,” it was a non-event. Fans removed their hats, put hands over hearts, and saw the color guard solemnly display the American flag. (Watch the Charlotte presentation of colors here)
PBR’s boss then did something they don’t teach you in Harvard Business School. He posted a passionate personal account on Facebook of what went down.
The story virally exploded and has been shared more than 2,000 times. PBR fans, partners and sponsors have had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the unfiltered “mad as hell and not going to take it any more” rant.
More than 100 fans posted comments cheering an overdue call-out of political correctness gone amok. They applauded a leader taking a stand for what he believed was right. Maybe they even liked a story told without a whiff of corporate-speak or any evidence of PR vetting.
The sport’s leader was actually channeling what just about every boot-wearing, pickup truck-driving fan felt, and what cowboy athletes have been doing since PBR was founded 23 years ago: the sacrosanct act of proudly honoring our country’s flag, national anthem, and the heroes serving it.
In an interview with the Charlotte Observer, Gleason said that “PBR respects the arena’s right to create policy. However, in this case, the policy conflicted with the ability of federal law enforcement officers to perform their duties. We are thankful the issue was resolved, allowing The US Customs and Border Protection color guard to honor America, which is important to PBR, our riders, and our fans.”
Today, corporate decisions and the attendant public statements are put through an industrial-sized PC filter. Any trace of controversy is neutered for fear of offending the masses perpetually on the trigger hairs of being offended.
The PBR rant really played into today’s political climate. Speaking out in raw and honest terms and standing by your beliefs just may be may be the next opportunity for marketers.
Naked authenticity punctuated with multiple exclamation points is not a strategy without risk, particularly as the country polarizes on a growing list of issues. It will be interesting to see if PBR continues to find ways to trumpet its cowboy values and feed the wildly patriotic tendencies of its fan base.
The league’s official partners like Ford Trucks, Caterpillar, Dickies, Jack Daniel’s, Wrangler, Bass Pro Shop, Boot Barn, Monster Energy, Lucas Oil, B&W Trailer Hitches, BlueDEF, Bad Boy Mowers and others are probably thrilled with the groundswell of patriotic kudos. And maybe that brings opportunities for other red-white-and-blue brands to connect with what Forbes recently called, in an early season column, “the most authentic sponsorship platform in sports.”
In Charlotte last weekend, a straight-shooting CEO took a stand on a relatively minor arena policy. And the crowd, albeit one that was already passionate about its sport, went wild.
The question is, should PBR take a stand on larger social and political issues? Also what happens if a cowboy decides to take an opposite stand, and kneels during the anthem, as we have seen in other sports? We are seeing more and more social activism by athletes, and while the support of a conservative issue by the PBR might not shock many, it certainly does play out in the court of public opinion. and will stir debate.
As the red state/blue state divide intensifies, straight talk gains value in many sectors, and a fan base’s love affair with its simple, straight-shooting cowboy athletes deepens, this is a brand story worth keeping an eye on.