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Protest in sport: What effect does it really have?

Patrick Austen-Hardy

Does collective fan protest force change or do the millionaires and the suits just ignore them? 

newcastle protest

A Newcastle United Fan’s message to Mike Ashley

The right to protest is seen as being the backbone of modern democracy. For centuries, unsatisfied individuals have made placards and gathered in the masses to stand against things they do not believe in. The Suffragettes are some of the most famous protests to take place in human history.

However, organised protests and demonstrations are now becoming a recurring factor in sport as a whole. The global expansion of sport has been enormous in the last fifty years, with major sporting events such as the Olympics and the World Cup reaching all four corners of the world. As the viewing figures continue to soar through the roof, so too does the financial gain.

In particular, Football, or soccer depending where you come from, has profited immensely from globalisation. Billionaire owners are becoming more of a commodity and many football clubs have reached new levels thanks to the giant financial injection, instituted by these wealthy individuals. But, this has led to football fans feeling disenfranchised, excluded and most of all dissatisfied. They are struggling to afford the lucrative ticket prices, the cost of replica team jerseys and the subscription to watch their football teams on televisions.

Sometimes the dissatisfaction inspires fans to cluster together and form protest groups to demonstrate against the suited up board members. These groups seldom make a dent in these financial machines and in the end are left to force fake smiles in the stands or sit at home and watch their team’s highlights on Match of the Day at 10:30pm.

Though, there are instances where collective fan groups succeed and force change. In 2011, Newcastle United and Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley, outraged fans of the Magpies when he renamed their beloved home ground St James’ Park to ‘The Sports Direct Arena’ because he did not believe the name was “commercially attractive.” The fans were incensed and this controversial decision sparked mass protests, condemnation from all respected media outlets and a furious outcry from fans of all sides.

Ashley found himself trying to control a blaze which looked to be spiralling out of his control, but Wonga.com, came to his rescue in 2012. The loan company not only agreed to invest heavily into the club, £1.5 million a year for four years to be exact, but they also agreed to reintroduce the St James’ Park title to the 52,000 capacity stadium, even though they actually owned the naming rights and could have made a lot more money if the ground was named after their company. They said “We listened over the last three days and we saw what really matters to the fans.

“Football is an emotional sport and it is obviously really important to them. We listened to what they wanted and that is why we did it.”

Not only did the Newcastle fans get their stadium name back, they also got a grovelling apology from Ashley in which he admitted “I should not have changed the name of St James’ Par.” The St James’ Park title represents a huge victory for the fans in the civil war between Ashley and the Newcastle faithful.

And then there are other situations where the fans were not so successful. West Ham United are one of the latest clubs in English football to be in civil war against the board. David Sullivan, David Gold and Karen Brady are currently public enemy number one after they moved West Ham United to the Olympics Stadium in Stratford. They were targeted in an ugly protest where a large section of supporters invaded the pitch while West Ham were playing against Burnley.

The scenes were extremely ugly and were completely parallel to a future the West Ham board promised when they moved to the ground. The captain, Mark Noble threw down a pitch invader, another fan took the corner flag and planted it in the middle of the football pitch and David Sullivan was almost blinded when a hurled coin hit his glasses. Experienced football commentator John Motson, who has commentated through the 1970s and 1980s when English football was plagued by hooliganism, said that the invasion was “the most scariest moment” he had ever experienced at a football stadium during his 50 years in commentary.

At one point the Burnley players were allowing younger supporters to sit on the bench with them, so they could get away from the rampaging protesters. The protest got a lot of attention in Britain and in Europe also. They succeeded in getting attention, but what about their overall goal? Brady, Sullivan and Gold remain at the West Ham helm, while security and police presence was heavily increased after the shameful scenes at the London Stadium. Minor protests still take place, with small supporter groups holding up banners and flags outside the station and the stadium every match day.

Unlike the Newcastle fans, who collectively came together to protest against the stadium name change, West Ham supporters are fragmented and divided on their issues. Many fans no longer live in London with fans coming all the way from places such as Surrey, Luton and Essex to support the club. A large section of fans actually like the stadium and believe that the change was paramount if they wanted to compete with clubs like Chelsea, Tottenham and Crystal Palace who are all evolving and either building new stadiums or expanding their home grounds. Supporters of the club have now founded new traditions, meaning they have found new pubs and bars to go to before they go to the game. Unfortunately the stadium change has affected local businesses near Upton Park, who relied on football supporters on match days, but aside from this a lot of people are satisfied with the stadium change.

This situation is an example of the possible negative implications protests. The extremity of this demonstration does put this example in a different box, as most football protests are more peaceful and rely on the collective voice.

However protest in sport is a funny thing. Most people who have a problem with a vendetta with anything or anyone prefer to protest silently or with their feet, by simply not attending or buying the thing they are unhappy about. But sport is completely different. It is not like being unhappy with a restaurant or a shop. If one has a bad meal, they would not normally proceed to smash up the restaurant or stand outside it with placards and a megaphone.

Individuals outside of sport, or who do not follow sport seem to underestimate the effect it has on people’s lives. It provides individuals with an escape of the day to day stresses and problems of life. Sport can sometimes cause more stress and anger, but the stress is different and would not usually extend further than the white lines of a football pitch or the turnstiles at a ground. Overall, protest in sport is unique and as long as sport is emotional and still present in modern society, so too will protests and mass demonstrations.

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