“The NFL has hurt Papa John’s shareholders.”
Whether that is really true (and several other chains have had fun building off of the narrative) its rough stuff for a league to hear from a top sponsor, this one from the pizza chain’s CEO Jon Schnatter.
As we draw closer to Thanksgiving and the expected chatter about football playoff scenarios, it’s extraordinary that the story of NFL players taking a knee continues to dominate the news cycle during a time of natural disaster and global geo-political turbulence.
Whether it’s the latest inevitable early-morning presidential tweet, awkward f team owner comment, or sponsor brand CEO pinning disappointing quarterly sales results on the protest, each week has reliably brought a new twist to the saga.
If the players continue to find reasons to engage in peaceful albeit very distracting and polarizing protests, sponsors, and stakeholders will most likely say and do things adding to the latest turns of the story, the coverage will continue, and America will remain abuzz with rancorous debate.
The NFL is caught in a tale of mixed messages and emotions and frankly not a great deal of listening. Lots of shouting. For a gigantic brand aspiring to appeal to everyone, unity is preferred. Said another way, you want the talk focused on the competition rather and outside-the-lines issues. That’s not easy any more.
Amid this controversy, other leagues are staying neutral to avoid the story. It’s not easy either. Even red-state bastion NASCAR, after legendary team owner Richard Petty threatened to fire anyone disrespecting the flag, saw its biggest star, Dale Earnhardt Jr., side with athletes engaging in social protest.
Yet, another sport, one smaller than the NFL and eager and able to appeal to its core, is proudly playing to its God-and-Country base. Amid its five-day World Finals in Las Vegas, Professional Bull Riders (PBR) is doubling down on overt patriotism and a call for fans to come together in unity and respect for the country.
PBR opened World Finals on Wednesday with the unveiling of a giant American Flag carried by 100 local first responders exhibiting heroism during the recent horrific shooting. On Saturday night, the season’s penultimate will open up with this video showcasing families of fallen soldiers and first responders. The video concludes, “They are why we stand.”
And then, fans at T Mobile Arena, not far down the strip from the site of unspeakable tragedy just over month prior, will sing the National Anthem a cappella.
That’s right – a pro sports league is laying out an emotional tear-jerking case for why the flag should be respected, and then the fans will sing “The Star Spangled Banner.”
PBR is maybe the only pro sport whose athletes voluntarily pledged to stand for the national anthem. The riders had signed a pledge initiated by bullfighter Shorty Gorham and off they went. The president took on the NFL, the story exploded, and it won’t go away.
But this is not a finger-in-the-wind marketing stunt playing to socio-political changes. Love of God and Country is in the PBR’s DNA no matter who is in office or what’s popular at the box office. Love it or agree with it or not, its what connects with their fans and the message they portray is clear. Their fans listen to them.
The opening video will also be picked up by CBS Sports Network’s Saturday telecast. Its backing song, “Never Forgotten,” is performed by Ryan Weaver, a combat vet signed by the PBR as its “official patriotic voice.” The league owns Weaver’s new music, allowing the league to freely use the songs in events, marketing, and on TV while avoiding licensing fees and cumbersome approval processes. Weaver will be performing at World Finals this weekend, and along tour stops next season.
Weaver is a former Blackhawk helicopter pilot whose brother Aaron, also an Army aviator (and a hero portrayed in the film Blackhawk Down), was killed in Iraq. The Florida native quit flying the very day his brother died. He began chasing a country music dream by singing in Karaoke bars. PBR discovered Weaver singing his lungs out and telling his poignant story at a Veterans’ benefit in Colorado. At World Finals in Las Vegas fans can buy Weaver’s 4-song EP, “Celebrate America” with proceeds going to The Border Patrol Foundation.
Weaver’s video features families of first responders and military members who have died in service to our communities and country.
When the PBR was creating the special presentation, they came across interesting and legitimate news: never-seen-before footage of the first American flag raised in the frozen zone at Ground Zero. (The much heralded flag known from a Pulitzer-prize winning shot from the Bergen Record was taken in an area allowing photographers; this flag was planted between the collapse of Building 1 and 2, a dangerous area referred to as “the crater” and designated by the FBI and NYPD as an off-limits to anyone but rescue and recovery crews.)
For years, the man who raised this particular flag, Det. Rich Miller, had declined the opportunity to boast about retrieving it from a nearby high school and attaching it to the antenna that had stood atop the North Tower. Miller personally knew some of the firemen who had perished on 9.11, and didn’t want to take anything away from the heroism and valor of the FDNY.
When asked about FDNY’s “first” flag, he had always declined discussing the matter. After 16 years, he decided to give his first interview to PBR. He believes in what the league is doing to honor true American heroes and coming together as a country through respecting Old Glory.
On Saturday night, the last stop if its season-long “Celebrate America” tour, PBR will again go deep and hard on red, white and blue.
You can bet they’ll be plenty of tissues out when combat vet Ryan Weaver sings “Never Forgotten,” and images of his brother and other heroes lost beam across T Mobile arena, and then thousands of fans remove hats from heads and place hands over hearts as they sing loud and proud about an unabashed love for the land of the free and home of the brave.