In 1991, the National Football League moved the 1993 Super Bowl and the National Basketball Association moved its meetings over Arizona’s refusal to recognize a federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. Two decades later, in 2010, musicians pulled out of concerts and some pressured Major League Baseball to pull its All-Star Game from the state over a controversial immigration crackdown. A few years later, in 2014, pressure was again brought to bear on the NFL over the 2015 Super Bowl, with members of the host committee and companies including Delta Air Lines opposing a bill that would have allowed businesses to deny service to gay people.
Today, the comparison between what happened in Arizona then and what’s happening in Georgia now is a case in point when it comes to how much bolder corporations — including pro sports leagues — have become in making hard political decisions about their businesses.
It’s also bound to be another case in point when it comes to whether those moves are politically and economically viable.
What has transpired since then has been a rather fortuitous confluence of athletes and their allies becoming more forceful and the coronavirus pandemic making more-abrupt changes in corporate philosophy less arduous.
For years, conservative media and lawmakers decried athletes kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. Vice President Mike Pence made a show of walking out of an Indianapolis Colts game after players, rather predictably, knelt during the anthem. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis last year, though, athletes and leagues leaned in to racial-injustice protests, making Black Lives Matter messages a fixture in a way that might have drawn more derision if there had been fans like Pence in the stands to protest.
All of which brings us to what’s happening in Georgia. MLB, which declined to move its All-Star Game over the immigration crackdown in Arizona, is now doing so (along with the MLB Draft) over voting restrictions in Georgia. It has done so in alliance with Delta, which is one of the biggest employers in the state. Two entities that diverged to some extent last decade in Arizona are now united in cause.
The question is what it does to their business models, and the implications are huge for how such issues are handled from here on out, perhaps more so than at any point in recent sports history.
There is little question that Arizona’s failure to recognize MLK Day in the 1990s cost the state significantly. Some estimates pegged the hit as high as $200 million. And after the state lost conventions and a bid to host NCAA basketball tournament games, it wound up recognizing the holiday by 1992 anyway.
The difference today is in the pushback. Conservative defenders of Georgia’s law are accusing MLB, Delta and Coca-Cola of overreacting to a pressure campaign from the same elements that have gotten traction elsewhere as racial-justice efforts have caught on. These conservatives, including former president Donald Trump, have called for boycotts.
Thus far, evidence of the effectiveness of such full-fledged boycott attempts is limited, but there is little to believe that they have had a lasting impact. Despite Pence’s walkout and Trump calling for NFL boycotts over players kneeling — along with early indications that they might have had an effect on the league’s finances, including polls suggesting fans would tune it out — the league’s revenue actually increased by nearly 5 percent in 2017. And even if you believe they had a momentary impact, there is even less evidence that it has affected the NFL over the long term.
Some key differences between then and today are the still-gradual reintroductions of fans into stadiums, who the president is now (President Biden said he would “strongly support” MLB taking the All-Star Game away from Atlanta) and the league actually leaning in to the change — in contrast with the NFL trying to gradually massage the kneeling controversy away. But it will also be more difficult to gauge its impact, given that the finances of the league are already out of whack because of the shortened 2020 season (60 games rather than 162) and the continued lack of ticket revenue, with most stadiums still limiting capacity.
What’s clear is that plenty is on the line. And if there’s any time to try to force through a change in a corporation’s political philosophy, this one presents as ideal an opportunity as there might ever be.