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Threat of Marathon Protest Puts Sports Business Community on Notice

1 Oct, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon Will Be a Study in Preparedness and a Lesson to Sports Event Planners

The protest that is planned to disrupt the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon in Minneapolis this weekend has drawn the eyes of more than sportscasters and more than runners.

It has event owners’ and rights holders’ undivided attention, and has given them much to think about.

The protest, planned by the St. Paul chapter of Black Lives Matter, was announced four days before the beginning of the October 3 and 4 race weekend, according to an article in the Star Tribune.   The chapter has stated its intentions of “shutting down” the annual October running event near the finish at the State Capitol to raise awareness of recent incidents involving St. Paul police and ethnic minorities.

St. Paul police and the marathon’s organizers declined on Tuesday to discuss the protest, but issued statements saying they are working on plans to ensure the safety of the more than 11,000 runners, as well as volunteers and spectators involved. Marathon organizers, in one of the regular updates published to their website added on Wednesday a note that “city officials have said they will not tolerate any actions that compromise the marathon, its runners, spectators, or its success.”

How the events of this weekend unfold will be watched closely by those in the sports event planning community, particularly those in the Mid-Atlantic region, where fall is one of the busiest times for large and high-profile events such as marathons, triathlons, group cycle rides and more.

As a consequence of the events unfolding at the Twin Cities Marathon, the sports business community can expect to be putting in extra hours on security, preparedness and crowd control, particularly for events being held in major urban centers. And although many events have ramped up awareness since the bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon, protests are a different dynamic, necessitating their own unique strategies.

In its own way, the Twin Cities event will be a case study that future sport management classes will learn from. It’s a complicated, multifaceted equation that represents the balancing act all sports planners fear most: because while participant safety and the avoidance of violence are foremost in event organizers’ minds, the threat of a protest also brings ancillary concerns on the business side, including the protest’s potential to damage the reputation of the event and the domino effect this can have, including decreased attendance in the future, sponsors’ refusal to commit in years to come and the overall decrease of economic impact to the area.

Officials have already seen the disruptive effects protesters can have on professional sports. In St. Paul, an incident in which a group blocked the light rail train tracks prevented the train’s use by fans attending the Minnesota Vikings 2015 home opener.  In Baltimore in April, when riots and protesting in the city forced the relocation of three Orioles home games to their opponents’ stadium in Tampa Bay, the team elected to play a fourth game, scheduled against the Chicago White Sox, to an empty stadium, resulting in tremendous losses to nearby businesses that rely on game day traffic.

While sports has never been lacking for drama and protests, much of it has been seen at the national and international level, including on the Olympic stage. This may be the first disruptive protest of a high-profile event in which amateur athletes participate alongside professionals and elites. And like it or not, today’s sports event planners are about to have an important learning experience as a result of it – and the industry will be on notice for what to do next time.

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