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Politics and sports have never been closer. For brands, silence isn't neutrality


By Matt Readman, Chief strategy officer

January 19, 2024 | 8 min read

Sports have long delivered for brands. They’re also a platform for politics, whether we like it or not. Brands better get ready to pick sides, explains Dark Horses’s Matt Readman.

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Just before Christmas, Asahi-owned Pilsner Urquell pulled out of sponsoring the Olympic Games. The reason being that the brand also sponsored the Czech Olympic team and, following the IOC’s decision to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to be part of Paris 2024, the brand felt that the two were incompatible.

It would be easy to imagine that ‘pull-out politics’ are rare but happening more frequently. Fifa lost global sponsors over the decision to host a men’s World Cup in Qatar. At the same time, a Roman Abramovich-owned Chelsea FC lost corporate backers after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These are just a couple of recent examples, and there will be more in the years to come.

One of the big motivations to keep politics out of sport is that it protects sponsors. If you’re a big global brand, you want to know a big global tournament isn’t going to be hijacked for political gain. It’s why Fifa president Gianni Infantino argued so strongly that Qatar should be about football, not politics.

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The irony is that, in this case, an attempt to be apolitical achieved the opposite effect. By allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as neutrals, the IOC believed it was removing the politics from a sporting competition. In reality, it was inadvertently making a political statement of its own.

What this proves is that it is impossible to be apolitical.

If we’ve learned anything from 2023, it’s that there’s no way not to take a side. Inaction is in itself a form of action.

We should by now understand this about sport. Politicians like Lee Anderson and Donald Trump, who have argued against taking the knee, fail to see that singing the national anthem before a game is also a political act. They are blind to this because it represents their beliefs and the status quo, but it is political. By its very existence, international sport is a conduit for geopolitics.

As outlined in our report, ‘Sport in Times of Crisis’, this is important for marketers to understand in 2024 because we’re entering one of the most politically charged periods of sport we’ve seen to date. Of course, we’ve seen politics and sport intertwined in major acts throughout the 20th Century. Still, a new political perfect storm is brewing as a series of powerful forces grow and will inevitably collide.

Firstly, we’re living through a period of socio-political and geopolitical disruption, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall. 2024 is a record year of elections, with more than half the world’s population set to go to the polls. With the rise of populism and political division fuelled by an algorithmic age, there will be no shortage of culture wars in the coming years.

More important, of course, is that real wars are raging across the world, with Ukraine and Russia locked in a stalemate, an ever-deteriorating situation in Gaza. Not to mention the threat of broader escalation in the Middle East and China’s expansionist aims. [Editor’s note: between submission and the edit, Iran and Pakistan had a clash too].

In this politically charged world, sporting actors are finding their voice. Since Colin Kaepernick made his stand by kneeling and was supported by Nike, we’ve seen a dramatic rise in athletes voicing political opinion. Lebron James, Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Lewis Hamilton and Marcus Rashford have all added to their iconic status by having strong social and political campaigns. In the last few weeks, we’ve seen athletes take either side in the Israel-Gaza conflict, with Australian cricketer Usman Khawaja displaying a pro-Palestinian message on his shoes and Israeli footballer Sagiv Jehezkel making a hostage plea after scoring. Whereas in the 1990s, superstar athletes like Pete Sampras and Michael Jordan believed their place was to keep out of politics, this generation holds no such inhibitions.

It’s not just athletes who have found their voice; brands are enabling them. Over the past ten years, the rise in purpose-driven marketing - right or wrong - has given brands license to take a stronger socio-political stance. Whether brands choose to make a stand is up to them, but what they can’t afford to do is end up on the wrong side of public opinion. You cannot be a bystander; the argument that sport and politics shouldn’t mix any longer holds in many fans’ eyes.

To add further fuel to the fire, it’s not just those involved in sport that will try and use it for political gain, but those outside of it too. In a world where our media and entertainment have become fragmented, sport is almost unique in its ability to hold our collective attention. Three million more people watched England in the World Cup than the Queen’s funeral. As such, it creates a stage that protestors will look to hijack. Last year, we saw the disruption created by climate change and animal rights activists on sport. Sold-out stadiums and huge TV audiences will tempt any political activist.

Finally, this will all be happening in liberal democracies as, over the next decade, global sport takes one of its strange geographical tours to the Western world.

Between now and the 2034 Fifa World Cup in Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest sporting tournaments will almost exclusively be held in the US, Europe or Australia. This will give all the groups above added confidence to make a progressive statement. For example, there is less risk and more reward than in China or Qatar.

All of this is to say that sport and politics have arguably never been so complicated. It is not a safe space where brands can be blindly neutral. The idea that by not acting, you can’t offend anyone no longer exists. Brands need to be clearer than ever on why they’re in sport and what they’re trying to achieve. If you don’t have this clarity, it’s very easy to get swept up in someone else’s narrative.

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