First Nations people please be advised this article contains mentions of racist comments against First Nations people.
While the International Olympic Committee espouses that sport is about solidarity, fair play and friendship, the commercial investment in sport tells a somewhat different story.
It’s clear the sport industry is big business. The global sport sponsorship industry is booming, with value expected to reach over A$140 billion in the next five years.
The hive of activity this week around Hancock Prospecting sponsoring Netball Australia has ended with the mining giant pulling the pin on the $15 million deal.
However, the challenges confronting Netball Australia are far from over. The organisation is in a dire economic situation and at risk of financial ruin. Earlier this year, it was reported that due to years of poor fiscal management, the organisation was operating at a loss of $7.2 million over the past two years.
Hancock withdrawing their sponsorship has not only opened financial wounds, it has also exposed a significant divide between players and administration.
One week ago, it emerged that Diamonds player Donnell Wallam objected to wearing a match uniform bearing the Hancock logo. Wallam’s concern relates to the mining company’s founder, Lang Hancock’s infamous comments in the 1980s that Indigenous Australians should be sterilised. In support for the Diamonds’ only Aboriginal player, Wallam’s teammates stood by her, and in a public statement said:
We are fully committed to the Diamonds’ Sister in Arms legacy and the values this represents, alongside Australian Netball’s Declaration of Commitment.
What we are witnessing now isn’t just external public criticism, but growing activism by athletes taking a stance against certain brands sponsoring their sports.
This isn’t limited to netball. In the past week, the Australian men’s cricket captain, Pat Cummins, declared he will not appear in any advertisements for Cricket Australia sponsor Alinta Energy.
While it’s risky to “bite the hand that feeds you”, this athlete advocacy is reflective of activism within broader society. These days we have higher expectations of brands and organisations to do the right thing.
If sporting bodies want to stay relevant and respected, these concerns cannot be ignored.
Can values override a sponsor’s logo?
It’s alleged that Netball Australia rejected the players’ request that Wallam be granted an exemption from wearing the Hancock logo for personal reasons. While we may not be privy to the full story, this is surprising given the precedent set in other sports.
There are many examples where sporting bodies have accepted athletes’ concerns around sponsors not aligning with their beliefs or religion. Back in 2017, the Auckland Blues and New Zealand Rugby agreed that star player, Sonny Bill Williams, wouldn’t have to display sponsor logos relating to finance, alcohol or gambling, due to his religious beliefs.
Similarly, Cricket Australia has permitted Usman Khawaja and Fawad Ahmed to not wear the logo of the Australian beer sponsor, Victoria Bitter, due to Islamic beliefs.
So, while the sponsorship controversy continues to swirl, serious questions should be asked within Netball Australia’s administration. Particularly given their 2020 “Declaration of Commitment”, a public commitment to “listen, learn and change by engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples”.
Sponsorship as a form of sportswashing
Hancock Prospecting’s sponsorship of netball and other sports is by no means altruistic. There are a range of reasons why companies invest in sport sponsorship, from increasing brand awareness to business growth and development.
We also see companies using sports to improve their public image, which is known as “sportswashing”.
There are many examples of sportswashing. At the extreme end, it can relate to countries hosting sporting events or investing in sport clubs to sanitise their serious human rights violations. In other contexts, it can be fossil fuel companies sponsoring teams or events to cover the negative associations of environmental degradation.
For decades we have seen companies that pose some level of threat to societal welfare blazoned across jerseys, stadiums and sport broadcast. From tobacco sponsorship in the 1980s and 90s, to the current proliferation of sports betting and fossil fuel sponsorship, our sporting arenas are promoting companies that contradict the values sport proclaims to uphold.
Sport sponsorship is a form of co-branding relationship. There is transference of inherent values and image between partners. While this is obviously attractive for the corporate sector seeking to win the hearts and minds of consumers through their affiliation with sport, the transfer of value is two-way. The sponsored property is also impacted, positively or negatively, by the brands they align with.
Historically, sponsorship’s financial value has long overshadowed the ethical values of sport organisations and their athletes. But the tide may be turning.
Of course, there needs to be a balance between the commercial realities of operating a financially stable sport and staying true to the values of the organisation, athletes, and supporters.
There has been public disdain towards incompatible sponsorship deals in the past. There was notable backlash and protest surrounding two London 2012 Olympic Games’ sponsors, British Petroleum (BP) and Dow Chemical. BP’s sponsorship came just two years after the devastating Gulf of Mexico oil spill, while Dow Chemical are linked to the horrific 1984 Bhopal gas disaster.
More recently, we’re seeing growing activism by athletes against individual sponsors. It’s reflective of an increasing trend, with younger generations in particular more likely to boycott a product, brand, company or country because of their social, environmental or political stance.
Looking ahead we will undoubtedly see more athletes speaking out about their values and beliefs. With this mounting pressure to be more scrupulous with sponsorship partners, a change across the sport sponsorship landscape appears imminent.
Sporting bodies that do not consider their stakeholders’ values and fail to consult with their athletes will be left at the start line.