Sportswashing: When brands don’t walk the walk, players will
27.10.2022

Branding has been truly beleaguered this year. From the ill-fated Pride jerseys of the Manly Sea Eagles to Nick Kyrgios’ flouting of Wimbledon whites, players are more vocal than ever about what logos they wear.

Read on to find out what lies in store for sponsorship, the risks to less ‘valuable’ sports, and the opportunities for ethical companies.

In 1995, Brad Pitt was voted Sexiest Man Alive, Coolio’s (Vale) Gangsta’s Paradise was the most popular song of the year, we were feverishly flailing our arms to the Macarena, and Amazon sold its first book. It was also the last year of the Winfield Cup – the Australian Rugby League Grand Final trophy.

Sponsored by Winfield, the trophy was retired at the end of the 1995 season, following the introduction of the Tobacco Advertising Prohibition Act in 1992. For most Millennials, the concept of not only promoting tobacco, but doing so within the sporting arena, is unfathomable (especially now that vaping is the nicotine inhalant du jour).

Could the next generation view sports sponsorships from fossil fuel companies with the same disbelief?

More than a logo

Branding has been truly beleaguered this year. From the ill-fated Pride jerseys of the Manly Sea Eagles to Nick Kyrgios’ flouting of Wimbledon whites in favour of Nike Jordans, players are more vocal than ever about what logos they wear.

Fashion choices of controversial tennis players notwithstanding, athletes are paying attention to sponsorships and whether or not they adhere to their own moral code. It’s a far cry from the days of Merv Hughes and his crew, promoting XXXX while on Ashes tours (though Merv had no ethical quandaries about hitting the cans).

In just the last few weeks, a number of high-profile sporting professionals have voiced their disagreement regarding their sponsors. Pat Cummins, Australian cricket captain, members of the Diamonds netball and Fremantle Dockers AFL teams have all spoken out, largely due to the issues of environmental impact and, in the case of the Diamonds, endemic racism.

This week, the Socceroos released a video speaking out against the human rights violations in Qatar, ahead of next month’s FIFA World Cup, becoming the first soccer team to do so.

Social conscience and sportswashing

Some media commentators decry that these are examples of ‘virtue signalling’. However, we have always expected athletes to set a good example, particularly for young people – which is why we come down on them so heavily when they fall.

With social equality and environmentalism discussed so ubiquitously – and, in the case of trans rights and violence against women, sports stars are asked for comment – why would we not expect them to have an opinion?

After all, the implicit ‘goodness’ of sport – combined with its mass audience – is why sponsorship is so appealing to major corporations. When companies have a reputation issue, what better way to recast their image than by basking in the reflected glory of a national treasure?

‘Sportswashing’ – the practice that trades off the love we have for a team to buy social licence – is not new, but our criticism of it is, and it feels like a watershed moment for the practice.

With an increasingly socially, politically, and environmentally-aware players and fans, we can expect greater scepticism of the brands, organisations (and political regimes, like Qatar’s FIFA World Cup) that underwrite sporting teams, codes and tournaments.

An uneven playing field

How much of an impact such dissent has, and who joins the conversation, relies (predictably) on money – who can be bought, who won’t be, and who can afford not to be. Sponsorship means more to some teams and players than others, depending on the sport, code and the sex of the players.

For Cricket Australia and the Dockers, a strong member base, fans and televised matches in prime time means new partnerships are more easily acquired than for Netball Australia, who made a loss of $4.4 million last year. While the courage to speak out is admirable for all, the level of sacrifice differs.

This emerging situation presents a unique investment opportunity for ethical brands to put their money where their mouth is, aligning with teams that match their values. For less progressive companies, however, the future of sponsorship is uncertain.

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