When Sport and Politics Meet in Social Media

The beginning of March 2020 was a special week in the USA’s political calendar. Super Tuesday is the day when the majority of states hold the primaries and caucuses, and when this year’s Democratic Party presidential candidate was decided. What place has USA’s politics in a sports media blog?

Exactly a month before we had another very important day on USA’s political agenda that might have been off your radar: Super Bowl LIV. This was an action-packed event. The game brought a late comeback during the 4th quarter from the Kansas City Chiefs – they were down 20-10 to San Francisco 49ers by the end of the 3rd quarter. The half-time also featured both Shakira and Jennifer Lopez.  Between KO and one hour after the final whistle, Panos Panagiotou (Sport Business Management ’19 alumnus and currently studying for a Masters at Loughborough University) collected over 370,000 nodes and 1 million edges from the Twitter network of the top trend #SuperBowl hashtag. Yet neither music celebrities nor athletes were central to this Twitter community as we can see below:

As you might now suspect, one politician stole the show: Donald Trump (@realdonaldtrump). Other key members of this network were also Trump associates; his son (@donaldtrumpjr), the comedian Terrence Williams (@w_terrence), the founder and co-chair of Students for Trump (@ryanafournier), some libertarian/conservative names such as Larry Elder (@larryelder) and Tom Fitton (@tomfitton), and other right-leaning ‘politicians’ who are currently in collision with Trump’s presidency, including Reed Galen (@reedgalen) and Rick Wilson (@therickwilson). Other political names, including the then Democratic-candidate Michael Bloomberg (@mikebloomberg) and the National Rifle Association (@nra) were also prominent in this network.

This network shows what myself and Dr Billy Graeff (Federal University of Rio Grande – FURG; Brazil) have previously discussed in regard to celebrity politicians and political celebrities during Brazil’s 2014 FIFA Men’s World Cup: Not only do nation-states seek to leverage their brand identities by hosting sport mega-events, but also individuals leverage their personal brands by associating/distancing themselves to those events. Super Bowl LIV provided an excellent platform for those individuals to leverage their political and cultural capital by both politicising the event and directly connecting to their supporter-base. It seems increasingly difficult to disassociate sport from politics, and both from our mediated cultural world.

With populism seemingly on the rise, when will we witness similar phenomenon here in the United Kingdom? When will it become ‘fair game’ for politicians to use sport for political game? Or are we still naively expecting sport to be a ‘safe heaven’ from wider societal issues as with politics and commercialisation?

*an early version of this post appeared first in the carnegieXchange blog

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