Marketing Media Planning and Buying Sports Marketing

110 years on from Emily Davison’s sacrifice, sports protest still wins people over

By Simon Hanley |

June 8, 2023 | 7 min read

Simon Hanley, senior brand strategist at Dark Horses takes a look through the history of protest in sport and reflects on how successful it continues to be.

Emily

110 years ago today Emily Davison ran in front of the King’s horse at Epsom and in doing so paid the ultimate price in the fight for women’s suffrage. To this day it is arguably still the most well-known and impactful act of protest in UK sport. Last weekend at the same race meet, Ben Newman was arrested after jumping the fence and running onto the course. While a direct comparison is obviously inappropriate, this latest sporting protest is part of a growing trend of disruption at high-profile sporting events.

Already this year, we’ve seen Premier League matches interrupted, the Rugby Premiership Final and F1 disrupted, attempts to stop the Grand National and we’ve even seen drama at the Crucible (which some might argue makes a nice change…).

This relationship between protest and sport is nothing new. In the late 60s the anti-apartheid movement successfully disrupted sporting events involving South Africa. Even back in Ancient Rome, protest was part of sport. In 532 AD, rival drivers from two popular chariot racing teams asked Emperor Justinian to pardon two of their followers who had been condemned to die. His refusal led to the Nika Revolt, six weeks of rioting that resulted in the deaths of 30,000 people.

The suffragette movement is particularly pertinent to the protesting tactics we’re seeing today. It was the biggest social struggle of the early 20th century and, arguably, the climate crisis is its equivalent at the beginning of the 21st century. Both movements successfully used the sporting stage as a platform to capture the attention of the masses.

Whether these protests are right or wrong is another question, but they’re seldom ignored. With social unrest continuing to rise, it’s highly likely that we will continue to see even more disturbances play out at sporting events this summer. And we might as well get used to them because, even with injunctions granted, they don’t look like stopping anytime soon.

On paper, a high-profile sports event is pretty much the perfect stage for a protest. Animal Rising regularly protests against factory farming, yet most of us would have no idea. Similarly, with Just Stop Oil, M25 gantries aren’t comparable to cup finals in their ability to pull in viewers.

That’s because as society becomes more fragmented, sport captures mass attention better than any other form of culture. TV and movies have moved to streaming with people viewing at different times and different speeds. Social media is enjoying an era of deep nichification. Music concerts are reserved for the few thousand that can get their hands on a ticket. Sport is still a place where all eyes are focused on the same thing at the same time.

This latest wave of activism creates a new challenge for the sporting world that goes well beyond just the security teams. You can already imagine it. Jimmy Anderson is preparing to bowl his first over in what will likely be his final Ashes series. But, as the excited on-looking crowd waits patiently to see history play out in front of them, proceedings are halted as a group of activists storm the pitch, met by an almighty chorus of boos from the Edgbaston faithful.

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Sponsorship is a big area that needs careful consideration. Much like the protesters, brands use the world of sport as an effective way to reach billions of fans across the world. But, they can’t simply use sporting events as a media buy without being caught up in the controversy of the protests and demonstrations that surround it.

It’s paramount that brands are clear about what they stand for, not just what they stand next to. They need to stay in control of the narrative, not get swept up in someone else’s. They need to start with what the brand exists to do and find partners who match that ambition, not partners who simply overlap with their target audience or worse still who the CEO just happens to know.

The starting point has to be a clear purpose, and no we’re not talking about a worthy social responsibility campaign, we’re talking about a clear direction. ‘Why are we doing this?’ has to be the first question to answer.

Having this clear direction will offer some insulation to brands in these controversial moments. It allows them to recognize the importance of a protester’s point of view but stick to their guns as to why they are putting their name to it.

It’s therefore vital that as we head into a summer of sporting discontent, sponsors need to be clearer than ever on what they stand for.

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