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Amid Super League civil war, did the social media racism blackouts have any effect?

Amid the Super League Civil war, you’d be forgiven for forgetting some clubs were taking a principled stance against racism in football. Sam Shave, head of business development at thinkBeyond, reflects on the impact.

Last week, Swansea City made a bold statement by holding a week-long social media blackout. This was enforced because of the constant stream of racist abuse directed towards three of the club’s players. No player, senior staff member, academy or the club’s foundation posted during this time.

It wasn’t long before it generated conversation among the football community and beyond. Before we knew it, the Welsh club was soon joined by other outfits such as Rangers and Birmingham City. The UK’s largest anti-racism educational charity, Show Racism the Red Card, commended the action taken by these clubs and highlighted the importance of direct action from teams, who have such a powerful global voice.

And now the biggest impact comes in the form of a response from the Premier League, which has now announced plans for a social media blackout across its channels, as well as a proposal for all clubs to boycott online media for 24 hours in early May. It shows the power of football brands, and how a movement can snowball on social media.

But we know football can move even quicker, as we have seen over a tumultuous few days, with the formation and collapse of the proposed ‘European Super League’. The impact of voices and fans shone through here, with supporters, players, managers and even the prime minister all sharing their concerns and opposition to these propositions. Ultimately, fan affinity prevailed over the commercial opportunities for these clubs. Why not tackle racism with this ruthlessness, asked Leeds forward Patrick Bamford during the week.

Social media is such a voice in sports – sometimes for good, and sadly often for bad. And more needs to be done by the platforms to regulate the abuse. There’s only so much that clubs can do.

Regardless, commercially social media is one of the most crucial assets to any professional sports team. It’s a platform to engage supporters and activate crucial partnerships for the business. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – they are the face of the business online now.

Over 3.6 billion people worldwide are active on social media. Fans engage with live coverage, and consume behind-the-scenes footage and interviews while using it as a trusted source of information. Ultimately, it’s a sales channel. It’s a powerful tool for clubs’ commercial partners to activate on their relationship to reach new audiences.

So many clubs had to weigh off cutting off that important commercial platform. But it only makes an impact because of that cost. Impact is the external manifestation of an organisation’s purpose. It goes beyond making grand statements or developing policies to delivering action.

We have seen this before in sport. Take, for example, America’s NBA, where many of the players participated in the nationwide protests against racism and police brutality following the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. To ensure that players had a voice, the NBA agreed to resume the season based on a commitment to address social justice issues through their platform.

Regardless of the achievements on the court, with the Lakers winning their 17th NBA title or LeBron James claiming MVP for the fourth time, the 2019-2020 season will be remembered in history for how the league and its players used their platform to fight for social justice.

What we are seeing from both the NBA and football across the UK are significant commitments to drive action and responses to better the landscape and, crucially, combat racism.

While Swansea may have temporarily cut off a key commercial revenue stream to demonstrate their anti-racist stance, it’s important to note that a social impact strategy does not come at the expense of business or organisational growth, but as a key component of the brand. Research has found that the majority of US consumers want brands to take action on racism. It found that 35% of Americans have stopped buying from brands that have said nothing at all about racism.

To be optimally successful commercially, every sports brand and athlete needs to identify their role in supporting society and driving change. They then need to deliver on that with authenticity and heartfelt enthusiasm.

On paper, the actions of Swansea may appear to be a risky commercial strategy, but regardless of that they have made an explicit stand against racism to their followers. Whilst we don’t yet know what the longer-term impact of this may be, what we do know is that these messages to their fans will have had an impact on their perception of the club. They know where their club stands, and whether they agree or disagree with the action taken, they are certainly likely to respect the club for taking it.

With 84% of BAME Britons thinking that the UK is still very, or somewhat, racist, it is clear that action is still required. Racism in sport is an issue at all levels. In England’s top flight of football we have seen examples for decades, with Cyrille Regis being sent a bullet in the post, former Chelsea manager Avram Grant being bombarded with antisemitic emails, or the more current attacks on social media.

Last season, 10% of the 2,663 football fixtures played across England and Wales have been reported to feature at least one incident of hate crime, according to the Home Office.

That’s at the grounds. However, social media is the platform being used so often, especially with supporters not able to attend fixtures. At the end of the 2019/20 season Kick It Out reported the number of complaints directed to them on social media had reduced, citing the increased powers taken by these platforms and a culture of fear being instilled.

Yet here we are, one season later, and the only way to combat this and make an impact is by clubs and athletes cutting off the channels and taking away the privilege of content to make a stand. We applaud Swansea for taking a stand and taking actions to drive change. The key now is to deliver this at scale. Only then is it likely to have the desired impact.

Sam Shave is Head of Business Development at thinkBeyond, one of the leading global strategic consultancies with a focus on utilizing sport for social good.

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