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Nike and Kaepernick own the conversation as NFL season kicks off

As a new NFL season kicks off on Thursday, the conversation on kickoff day isn’t about football at all. It’s about Nike and Colin Kaepernick.

Nike (NKE) revealed Kaepernick as the face of its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign on Labor Day, simply by retweeting a single image from Kaepernick. In the days since, it reaped the benefit of free buzz — more than $100 million worth of free buzz, marketing experts say.

“Nike has probably passed the $100 million mark in free media just from doing this,” says Brian Cristiano, CEO of ad agency Bold Worldwide, which counts as clients many brands that advertise during NFL games. And that was even before Nike released a two-minute commercial on Wednesday narrated by Kaepernick. Prior to that, all it had done was one tweet. A different firm, Apex Marketing, now pegs the exposure value so far at $163 million.

Nike plans to air the Kaepernick ad during the NFL opener on Thursday night.

A billboard stands on top of a Nike store in San Francisco, Calif., showing former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
A billboard stands on top of a Nike store in San Francisco, Calif., showing former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

‘Brands are nervous behind the scenes’

To be sure, many football fans are angry over Nike embracing Kaepernick, and have voiced their displeasure with the social media hashtag #BoycottNike.

But Cristiano (and other sports marketing executives who spoke to Yahoo Finance on Monday after the Kaepernick news broke) predicts the positive attention will outweigh the criticism in the long run, and that Nike’s political risk is a model for what other brands must do in 2018.

“This is how conversation happens now,” says Cristiano, who is the guest on this week’s episode of the Yahoo Finance Sportsbook podcast (listen below). “If you’re playing in the middle, and you’re just trying to be reasonable and say, ‘Well, we don’t want to offend anyone,’ no one is going to talk about you.”

If that’s true, you might ask, what should Nike competitors like Adidas and Under Armour be doing right now in response?

There’s no easy answer to that one. Nike, which is also the official apparel sponsor of the NFL, is winning the conversation right now. But if Adidas or Under Armour were to hastily throw something together along the same political lines to generate buzz, it would ring as an inauthentic headline grab, Cristiano says. “And that is when everyone goes against you.”

Of course, the larger story here is the politicization of American football. President Donald Trump has spent a full year publicly railing against NFL owners for allowing some players to protest in the first place; primetime ratings were down an average 10% last season due to a wide range of factors that included, at least in some part, political outrage; and there’s no sign that the political issues will go away this year.

Where does that leave official NFL sponsors, a group chock full of big blue-chip consumer brands like Bud Light, Pepsi, FedEx, Procter & Gamble, Intel, and Microsoft, as well as non-sponsors that spend their marketing budgets to advertise during and adjacent to football?

They’re nervous.

“Brands are nervous behind the scenes that even just by participating in the NFL, if the conversation gets swayed too far one way or the other, their brand is going to get protested,” says Cristiano. “The thing about it is, that’s either going to happen because you’re part of the conversation, or you’re just going to become irrelevant. So brands just need to get over it and say, ‘This is just how it is today, it’s very opinionated, everything is politicized. So what do we really believe in, what are we willing to say publicly, and let’s just hold true to that.’ End of story.”

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. He hosts the podcast Sportsbook. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

Read more:

Nike’s Colin Kaepernick sponsorship has more reward than risk, experts say

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Poll: 54% of people approve of new NFL kneeling policy

‘It was never about the flag’: NFL veteran Martellus Bennett on kneeling

How NFL sponsors are responding to Trump’s national anthem crusade

Donald Trump’s war on the NFL dates back to 1986