Sports sponsorship’s crisis of conscience

2 netball players

Sports have long been a go-to for marketing spend; your company’s logo is emblazoned on guernseys to rack up exposure through TV coverage, while your brand bathes in the reflected glory that Australians bestow on our sports stars.

It’s a lucrative market, with many companies, and even some countries, prepared to invest big to reap reputational benefits. But this mainstay of marketing has become increasingly fraught and contested in recent times.

Controversy continues to swirl around awarding the FIFA World Cup to Qatar – which prompted Australia’s Socceroos to release a powerful video criticising human rights abuses in the Gulf country.

Saudi Arabia has also been accused of ‘sportswashing’ after it recently funded a rebel international golf tour, hoping to distract from poor treatment of women and minorities, along with other conduct such as the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Meanwhile, the influence and impact of our sports stars and codes is also increasingly being harnessed for social, as well as commercial, purposes. Major leagues have introduced pride rounds and are taking strong stances on racism.

The growth of social media has seen more sports stars becoming brands in their own right, amassing huge followings on their personal channels. And just as modern brands want to be perceived as having purpose, today’s sportspeople want to be associated with causes that reflect their beliefs, and distanced from those that don’t.

These factors, along with the increasingly lucrative sponsorship market underwriting some codes, are setting the scene for a rolling series of crises across the sponsorship landscape.

Conflicts between the businesses backing sports and those who play them are becoming inevitable, as demonstrated by the furore over the $15 million Hancock Prospecting netball sponsorship, and Pat Cummins’ questions around Alinta Energy’s backing of the Australian test team, due to a dubious record on climate change.

Netball’s Diamonds backed an Aboriginal teammate – who expressed concerns about company policies and historical statements by Hancock’s founder that some Aboriginal communities should be sterilised so they would "breed themselves out" – refusing to wear Hancock’s logo.

Then Gina Rinehart managed to magnify the PR damage by withdrawing the company’s sponsorship and attacking the players, stating “there are more targeted and genuine ways to progress social or political causes without virtue signalling or for self-publicity”.

With an election in the air, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews stepped in with a $15 million state government sponsorship for Netball Australia – and reaped the publicity benefits.

Interestingly, the media, and social media, took a more aggressive approach to the netballers than towards the captain of Australia’s men’s cricket team, Pat Cummins – who said he would no longer appear in advertising for the team’s sponsor Alinta because its parent company is one of Australia’s biggest carbon emitters. The netballers were called arrogant and ignorant (of commercial realities), spawning #wokeandbroke hashtags.

The gender contrast was even more marked if you examine the earlier coverage of the Manly rugby league players who refused to wear a multicoloured guernsey for a pride round and were praised for standing up for their beliefs.

More headaches for clubs and codes are coming, as sponsorships are increasingly seen through a moral lens. Beer and spirits make up the largest slice of sponsorship spending in Australia and elsewhere, and gambling is not far behind.

A Resolve Strategic survey last month found only 25 per cent of respondents believed gambling and betting companies should be allowed to sponsor sports and 62 per cent wanted them banned. Four in ten said alcohol companies should not be allowed to sponsor sports, while just over one in four wanted fossil fuel companies banned.

The AFL prides itself on leading the charge on social issues, but gambling ads are ubiquitous across the code and coverage of it. It is just one of the timebombs ticking away across the sports sector and as community expectations continue to rise, along with those of the players the games are built on. Testing times lie ahead.

Mark Forbes, Director of Icon Reputation.

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