Roe v Wade, The NFL & The SEC

If the Supreme Court overturns Roe, how would it impact the NFL and big-time college football? 

Before addressing this question, I want to make clear that I fully recognize that for millions of people, especially women, how football or sports in general would be impacted by a change in the country’s abortion policy is completely meaningless compared to the larger issue of reproductive rights and personal choice.  It is not my intent to trivialize such an important, highly personal matter, but merely explore the potential downstream impact, and again far less consequential, such a decision could have on industries of interest to For What It’s Worth – sports, marketing, and media.

It is impossible to ignore the increased politicization of sports.  Brands, leagues, media companies and athletes are all under considerable pressure to take a stand on the hot button political and social issues facing our country.  Regardless of how one feels about this trend, there is no denying it.

And there is perhaps no issue that evokes more controversy and passion as abortion.  For fifty years it has defined and inflamed our politics at all levels.  The recent leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion which would overturn the Roe decision has dominated the headlines for the past two weeks. 

Yes, it’s just a draft and history teaches us that justices have changed their minds many times before during the deliberation process.  The very fact that the draft leaked, regardless of who leaked it or for what purpose, to me is a clear indication that the issue is still very much in flux within the court.

But for the sake of argument let’s assume for a moment that the Court does overturn Roe and consider our original question.  What it would it mean for the NFL and big-time college football?  Of course, the impact in the sports world would extend far beyond football, but the NFL and college football are unrivaled in terms of their importance to marketers and media companies.

Many predict that politically “red” states such as Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, and Indiana would move quickly to outlaw abortion.  This is the heart of the SEC, the most important conference in college football.

Will brands that currently sponsor and advertise in college football be pressured to pull out of the SEC or any games involving teams that reside in states that make abortion illegal?  Nick Saban is an AFLAC spokesperson.  Would they keep him? (Probably.)  What about the college athletes banking six and seven figure NIL endorsement deals that play at SEC schools?  They are teenagers, new to the spotlight.  How will they navigate the issue?  Perhaps players will decide to stage some form of pre-game protest in support of a woman’s right to choose.  How will the fans react?

The situation for the SEC is particularly precarious.  If most states within the conference make abortion illegal, presumably because its winning politics locally, they will be hard pressed to condemn the new law without alienating their fan base.  However, the national brands and media companies that pump billions into the conference will be under enormous pressure to express their disapproval.  To not do so would risk alienating the majority of women across the country with hundreds of billions in spending power who are passionately pro-choice.

And what about the NFL?  Florida has three teams.  Texas has two – including the league’s most valuable franchise, the Dallas Cowboys.  Louisiana, Indiana, and Georgia each have teams.  Would there be pressure on media companies and advertisers to boycott games held in these states?  Would local sponsors pull out?  Will AT&T continue to want its name on the Cowboys stadium?  Will Caesars want its name removed from the Saints stadium?  How will the players respond in those markets and how will fans react?

The NFL knows that woman comprise a substantial portion of its fan base.  Undoubtedly Roger Goodell will feel compelled to issue a statement condemning any state where abortion is outlawed.  But would that be enough?  The 2025 Super Bowl is scheduled for New Orleans.  Would the league pull it?  Would they refuse to host any national league event like the Super Bowl or draft in a state where abortion is illegal?

Let’s consider the media companies.  What would it mean for Disney and ESPN that have invested billions in college football and the SEC in particular?  Will there be calls to boycott premier match ups featuring Southern schools, say Alabama vs LSU?  ESPN’s College Gameday Built by the Home Depot is the one of the most successful sponsorship programs ever.  Home Depot is based in Atlanta.  If Georgia outlaws abortion, will there be pressure on ESPN to drop them as a sponsor?  (Again, unlikely.)

How would NBC, Amazon, CBS, Fox, and ESPN address the issue in their NFL coverage?  What if advertisers refuse to have their spots run in games featuring two teams from states that outlaw abortion?

Media companies have more to consider beyond advertisers and league officials, very often their response to social and political issues is driven by forces within – their employees.  (This certainly was the case with Disney and the “Don’t Say Gay” controversy in Florida.)  It’s easy to imagine a scenario where female on-air talent and production executives refuse to work games or events in states that don’t recognize a woman’s right to choose.  (Many men could take the same stand.). Employees also will pressure their management to issue forceful condemnations that could risk relationships with the men (NFL owners and league commissioners) who control their most valuable programming franchises.

I don’t have the answers to these questions, no one does yet. Admittedly some are more far-fetched than others.  And I want to emphasize again that these questions are nothing compared to the larger issue of abortion policy itself.  But looking strictly within the lens of issues covered in this blog, it’s hard to imagine a worse nightmare for league and conference officials, marketers, and media executives.  I know several of them are already thinking about it.

Fans have divergent views on the politicization of sports.  And no issue is more divisive today than this one.  Some fans look to leagues and athletes to use their platforms to promote positive social change.  Others value sports as an escape from the troubles of the world and would prefer athletes and leagues stay focused on the games.

I think one of things we value most about sport is its power to unite.  The politics of every Cowboy or Crimson Tide fan are not the same.  Yet they agree that the world is a better place when their teams win.

To the extent football becomes a battlefield of abortion politics, regardless of where one stands on the issue, we risk losing something important, perhaps even vital, to our culture.  More than ever, we need things that bring us together.  Reason enough to hope that these questions never need be answered.

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