The Price of Supporting Our Troops with Sports Marketing

The crowd goes silent, hats are removed, and some people may even get a bit teary eyed as they hear “O say can you see” being sung loudly throughout the stadium. The singing of the National Anthem before or during sporting events is nothing new, and may go as far back as the mid 1800’s. It is sometimes sung by service members and is just one of the many types of tributes to military members during games. However, a recent report shows that many of these tributes and military appearances are being payed for by the Department of Defense with taxpayer dollars, and many Americans are not happy.

Senator John McCain and Senator Jeff Flake recently released a detailed report on what is referred to as “paid patriotism”. In it, they analyzed contracts between multiple professional sports organizations and the Department of Defense (“DOD”). The DOD is being scrutinized for handing out as much as $6.8 million in taxpayer money to professional sports teams in the past few years to honor military members at their games and events. Some of the money went towards advertising, recruiting and tickets for military members, but some was spent on tributes for soldiers. Honors included the singing of the national anthem, first pitches, puck drops and on-field color guard ceremonies with NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB, and MLS teams mentioned in this report.

Honoring members of the military at sporting events is something that has become very common in the United States. Since the days when Babe Ruth was taking the field, patriotism and sports have seemed to go hand in hand. However, some feel that this new report changes things. In the words of Senator Flake, “To find out taxpayers are paying for it, it cheapens the whole lot”. Is he right? Does the fact that teams are getting money for this take away the goosebumps you get when a brave military member steps up to the microphone, or as you watch children jump into the arms of their parent who’s surprise homecoming happened during the game?

Essentially, the DOD was paying these sports organizations sponsorship dollars to have the military involved or honored at games in some way. Sponsorships in sports is nothing out of the ordinary, but the fact that taxpayer money and the military were involved changes things for many people. Is this just part of sports and marketing? Should this be looked at as just another sponsorship?

The DOD as well as the NFL have said that the purpose of such activities was for recruiting. The NFL’s Commissioner, Roger Goodell, has gone so far to state that audits would be made of the contracts between sports organizations and branches of the military and that all money used for anything beyond recruiting and advertising would be payed back. But who’s to say that all of this isn’t just really good marketing?

Look, every single corporate partner challenges the sports properties they team up with to find “tasteful integrations” of their products and brand names within the marketing ecosystem of the team’s assets. In essence, the goal is to market to people without the feeling like you are being marketed to. Isn’t that what each one of these moments did for the branches of service they were highlighting?

Arguments can be made that taxpayers funds shouldn’t be made available for these efforts, nor should the DOD exploit these brave men and women’s personal and emotional relationships to appeal to the masses. However, as an investor in a corporation, doesn’t your purchase of that company’s stock go with the understanding they can spend it as they see fit to move the company forward? And doesn’t every brand look to exploit the most memorable, emotional and personal connection they can have with a customer so that they share a moment and deeper relationship with that customer?

Our brave men and women deserve respect, admiration and every accolade they entitled to ten fold. But the DOD’s obligation to attract the next generation of servicemen and women to protect our freedom is taking on a form of marketing that is doing what every brand hopes: get people to talk and notice their brand.