Politics As Branding

If we are going to have a conversation about politics and sports, we need to add branding and money to the discussion, at least as it pertains to professional leagues.

Last week, on one of our local online discussion groups, we witnessed one of the by now almost scripted conversations about MLS players kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem in support of Black Lives Matter.  

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The conversation began the way these things normally do with a poster arguing (asserting) that “Politics and sports don’t mix. Sports is for fun and entertainment. Please get rid of all the political B.S.” From there, of course, the conversation took the normal turn of some folks weighing in that this is really a human rights issue (which is beyond politics), and that, in fact, taking no action is a political act.  These are positions with which, for what it’s worth, I agree.

As I watched the conversation unfold, a few people suggest that MLS had the option to stop playing the National Anthem altogether.  It was reported that this was something the Dallas FC and Nashville SC players had requested after the “booing’ incident of the first game.  

When I went online to try to research MLS’s protocol (I was sorta wondering if they were obligated in any way to play the Anthem), I ended up, as one often does, down a rabbit hole, where I landed on a reddit post from two years ago in which an MLS fan noted, “Current events notwithstanding, the forced patriotism of singing it before every single sporting event has always struck me as borderline jingoistic and actually dilutes the impact. Why is it necessary to inject politics into a sports event?”

He was not talking about kneeling here as the “injection of politics,” but simply the playing of the National Anthem itself.  And of course, that position is right except it assumes that removing the National Anthem would remove politics. It would not. 

Every decision is in some sense a political act in context.  If MLS does not play the National Anthem, then soccer becomes, in the United States, the sport that spurns it, while other sports continue to play it.  That, like it or not, is not only a political decision but one that has implications for how soccer is positioned in conversations about sports. 

Decisions about what symbols or flags supporter groups are allowed to display, like the debates last year over antifascist symbolism are political questions with political outcomes.  

There is no way to avoid politics in sports.  There is simply no way to make it “just entertainment.”

So, perhaps it makes sense to think about instead how the league and the fans are branding “soccer,” how they are articulating it with certain values and audiences.  Soccer, in addition to being a sport, is a business.  Some people, like my colleague Davey Shepherd, sees it first and foremost as a business that happily does provide entertainment.

As a business, the owners have to think about the economic impact of “political decisions” on the brand.  What would it mean to stop playing the national anthem?  Would its core audience boycott? Would potential new audiences stay away because they see it as “anti-American?”  What does it mean for the managers and coaching staff to wear BLM gear?  Yes, it’s a political act and one to be applauded, but it’s not just that.  It’s a political act that, I would guess, finds a great deal of sympathy with the particular audience that is so far being built for it in America.  

While I applaud the league for their support of the movement, let’s be clear that if such support would have meant that the entire audience would have turned away from the sport, such a position would not be taken.

This is where the audience, the supporters, have leverage, of course. And it might be worth thinking about how that comes into play. Last year, for example, 3252, the LAFC umbrella supporter organization (comparable to NSC’s Backline), pushed the team to support a number of games in which the group would celebrate diversity. Hence, one evening, the tifo, flags and pyro of the supporters celebrated the LGBT community, and, for their part, the club had ten thousand rainbow-coloured captain’s armbands made up, one worn by club captain Carlos Villa.  Another night celebrated America’s women, with the tifo in honor of club owner Mia Hamm, female capos, and flags dedicated to figures like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Pakistani activist Malala.   

To be clear, these nights required coordination between the 3252 and the team itself.  These are hardly issues or figures that are celebrated routinely by people of all political persuasions.  Hence, in effect, LAFC is agreeing to a certain “branding” encouraged by the supporters.  And that’s a fairly big deal in that this branding influences the perception of the team, the comfort of the audience, the types of people who might be drawn to, and away, from it.  And while it’s ultimately the owners’ decision on what to allow or not allow, there is a growing tendency to maintain conversations with supporters groups.

In 1312: Among the Ultras, James Montague argues that this type of relationship between supporters groups and clubs can go too far to the degree that, by making concessions to supporter groups, many teams have allowed the supporters to look like wild outsiders, while buying them off with compromise.   I’m not sure I buy that argument, but I do understand that it’s an indication the supporters groups do have that symbolic power.

And it makes a lot of sense to use it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Broadway Sports as a whole.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.


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