Protest pantomime - football protests have become a performance, but do they make a difference?

Welcome to Tuesday Team Talk. Every week, the H+K Sports team will give a unique perspective on the week’s football action and the stories making the headlines across the beautiful game.

In modern football, everything is a performance. No longer just a game played on muddy pitches in parks up and down the country; football has become a global business and a global spectacle. It is a made-for-TV sport, with a polished product on the pitch and a media culture that makes every incident a circus. This performative culture has even made its way to the fans that have been stung by football’s commercial reality. There have been several examples recently of supporters protesting the current state of their clubs, but in the nature of their protests themselves, they have become part of the circus that surrounds the modern game, and seem ultimately destined to fail.

The latest example of a fan base looking to create mass awareness for their discontent came this weekend, with Charlton fans staging a protest against their owners that included a mock funeral and the game being disrupted by beech balls being thrown on the pitch. Check out the incredible pictures here.

The protest by Charlton fans against owner Roland Duchatelet came just a week after Leeds fans staged a similar funeral themed protest against their own owner Massimo Cellino that also featured that classic tool of mass communication, a plane carrying a banner.

Earlier in the season Liverpool fans made their own feelings felt by staging a mass walk out during the 77th minute of a Premier League fixture, in protest against rising ticket prices. The Liverpool fans even had some success, with their owners changing the ticket pricing they had been planning to implement.

But in recent years, several protests that have driven mass awareness have failed to achieve their aims. The ‘Love United, Hate Glazer’ protests evoked the colours of the clubs Newton Heath roots in really striking fashion, with even David Beckham donning one of their trademark scarfs after a Champions League game. Great, memorable tactics, but Glazer continues to own United.  Similarly, Newcastle fans have been very open in their disgust for Mike Ashley at various points, but he’s kept his grip on the club.

Modern football fans have capitalised on the showcase nature of modern football and managed to turn protest into performance in a way that has dominated the news agenda. However, this same culture that has given fans their platform also makes them destined to fail.

Social media, and the 24 hour news cycle before it, has taken the coverage of the game to a new level. Football is the most watched sport in the world and the Premier League is the most watched league, so the appetite for Premier League stories is huge. This popularity has also made football big business. Thanks to the growth of on-demand television habits, and the fact that sport is pretty much the last form of appointment television, sport has become the most valuable commodity in television. This makes it hugely valuable for advertisers and drives up the cost of ad spaces, which means the Premier League gets massively increased TV revenue, which passes on to its clubs. It used to be the case that you could never make money from owning a sports club, now you can.

What emerges is a catch 22 for football fans. They have an unprecedented platform to air their discontent, but the value of the a top flight football club means that owners are now less inclined than ever to give concessions, and especially not leave outright. Mike Ashley claimed to put Newcastle up for sale last year, but as a Premier League club, he likely was unwilling to sell for anything other than a premium price. Manchester United is one of the most valuable sports clubs in the world, so United fans can drive all the column inches they want with high profile protests, but why would the Glazers give up such an asset?

This isn’t to criticise football fans. If mistreated by owners, they have every right to express their discontent, and to do it in these high profile ways that drives mass awareness can only be a good idea. The harsh reality is however, that the commercial climate that gives fans this platform also destines them to suffer from owners whose primary objective is to make money from football clubs. With fans having to live with the realities of football as a business, we will continue to experience protest pantomime on a regular basis in top flight football.

James Fenn

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search