On Nov. 7, 2015, 30 members of the University of Missouri Tigers football team linked arms and stood with student activist Jonathan Butler, who was in the midst of a hunger strike protesting racial injustices on campus and the administration’s perceived failure to do anything about it.
The next day, the entire team announced they would not practise or play in the following week’s game until the president of the university resigned.
On Nov. 9, both the university president and chancellor resigned, avoiding a loss of ticket sales revenue in excess of $2 million and a league-sanctioned $1-million fine for the forfeit.
The players rejoined their team won an emotional 20-16 game in front of a fiery home crowd that had swelled by close to five per cent above the season average.
Oddly, that initial bump in attendance didn’t last. By the team’s final game, attendance that year had shrunk by more than 12,000 fans per game.
It just so happened that, at the time of the protest, Missouri was also mired in a three-game losing streak and in the midst of what would turn into a lacklustre 5-7 season.
Was the protest to blame for the diminishing crowds or was it simply a mixture of fan apathy due to a mediocre record and late-season disinterest?
According to research by University of Alberta sports management researcher Brian Soebbing and colleagues at the University of South Carolina, the protest did have consequences for the universities. When specifically looking at the University of Missouri, they found attendance declined by 6,000 fans nine games following the protest.
“If you think about 6,000 fans times the ticket price, even at $50, plus associated revenue streams, you’re talking upwards of half a million dollars per game,” said Soebbing.
To arrive at that number as well as a conclusion about the impact of athlete protests, Soebbing and a team of sport management colleagues collected regular-season college football game attendance data for all 1,170 Division 1 U.S. college football teams for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. They then controlled for a robust list of local economic characteristics, campus demographics, the month in which they played, and residual factors such as weather, conference the team plays in and even kickoff time.
While this decline was seen for the University of Missouri, some other universities examined following an athlete protest saw increases in attendance. The researchers then stacked those numbers against changes in attendance for the aforementioned University of Missouri, as well as for the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and the University of Nebraska, all of which saw players join National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick in kneeling on Sept. 24, 2016, during the playing of the national anthem to protest police brutality toward African-Americans.
What they found was voting demographics of the local market of the university had a significant relationship with the attendance in the initial games after a protest. Specifically, sharp declines in attendance occurred if a market contained 45 per cent or more Republican voters, which was the case in Nebraska.
However, although Missouri and both Michigan schools saw a bump in attendance in the initial aftermath of their respective protests, all universities sampled experienced some level of decline in their total attendance after a protest.
“Athlete protests or athlete activism is something that we’ve seen throughout the history of sport,” said Soebbing, who pointed to track phenom Jesse Owens, who chose to compete at the 1936 Olympics in Germany, and boxer Jack Johnson, who became the first black heavyweight champion in 1908. They were the first athletes to dispute beliefs about the intellectual and athletic inferiority of African-American athletes.
“In simple terms, our study demonstrates these protests can have an impact,” said Soebbing.
He said the marketplace provides athletes with political opportunities where resources can be mobilized to create awareness of social issues. He said it requires sport organizations to treat athlete protests not simply as innocuous or irrational gestures, but as change-oriented events that can influence interest for a long time.
He added perhaps the NFL owners’ recent consideration toward regulating and prohibiting players from repeated public displays of “Take a Knee” can be understood as a response out of fear of disrupting the market by reducing attendance at games.
“Certainly, we are in an era where we’re seeing more and more athletes become active in a variety of topics, particularly related to inequality and social justice,” he said.
“The bottom line is athletes are using their voice to raise awareness of issues and can have an effect.”