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Sport Has an Uncomfortable but Understandable Relationship with Sponsors

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Team Sky riders at the 2019 Tirreno-Adriatico (Sunada)

By Michael Pavitt |

Occasionally a story from Kent University, a place I allegedly spent three years studying at the start of this decade, attracts my attention.

Most of the time it involves the recurrent efforts from the Conservative Association at the University to exploit flaws in a petition system by securing enough signatures to have a giant iron statute of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher be considered for construction.

The last story on this came back in 2016. At which stage the proposed statue height of the statute had risen to 250 feet, with inspiration coming from the Colossus of Rhodes.

Oddly, the Iron Lady was not the most viral story which has emerged in recent years from the University, since my departure.

In 2014 one of the University’s college football teams achieved notoriety after jokingly adding the PornHub logo to their shirts having struggled to find a sponsor to provide financial backing.

The University deemed this to be “totally inappropriate” – shocking I know.

“The team has been spoken with and will not be allowed to wear the shirts in question at any time,” a spokesperson was quoted at the time. “We take this issue very seriously and inter-college sports teams, which are the responsibility of Kent Sport, must present any potential sponsorship and/or logos for approval.”

One the players involved then hit back at the University, claiming that their position had been inconsistent due to the cricket team being sponsored by an alcoholic drinks brand, another age-restricted product.

“It’s hard for football teams to find a sponsor, both Kent Sport and Rutherford refused to give us any money,” the player told the Independent. “Clearly Pornhub did because there’s was an opportunity to create a bit of attention.”

I was reminded of this entertaining dispute earlier this week, as complaints arose over Inoes taking over from Sky as principal backers of Britain’s WorldTour cycling outfit. The petrochemicals company officially launched at the Tour de Yorkshire, which just happened to be a county where Ineos owns licences to conduct fracking at several locations.

The company’s sponsorship unsurprisingly attracted criticism from environmental protesters, who held demonstrations against its business practices. This included plastic production and links to fracking.

“Ineos’s sponsorship of sports teams stems from a desire to greenwash its highly damaging and polluting activities,” a statement from Friends of the Earth chief executive Craig Bennett read this week. “It is wholly inappropriate to accept such sponsorship and thereby facilitate this greenwashing. We are sure this is also a matter of deep disappointment for your supporters and will result in continuous controversy.”

Team Ineos principal Sir Dave Brailsford reportedly claimed to be “very comfortable” with the ownership of the team. According to the BBC, he claimed the near ownership did not contradict the previous commitment from Sky, which pledged to remove all single-use plastic by 2020.

You could make the case all three parties – Ineos, environmental groups and Brailsford – have all succeeded following the launch.

Ineos and its owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe, Britain’s richest man, have clearly already benefited from their association with their new venture into cycling. 

The whole point of sponsorship in general, let alone backing a cycling team, would be to ensure brand awareness. I personally had never heard about Ineos prior to their arrival in the sport. The sheer number of stories, both positive and negative about the company, have acted as adverts for the company and provided a platform for its owner to refute claims.

Environmental campaigners, similarly, have also been able to seize the opportunity presented by Ineos’ arrival to raise awareness. An issue that can get lost within the countless other problems covered in newspapers daily has been able to be brought to the attention of many through the link between fracking and sport. 

Again, I admit to being unaware that elements of the UK Government’s policy on fracking had been declared unlawful by the High Court earlier this year until this week.

Brailsford was also able to achieve his main aim of finding a new sponsor for the team, having even stated in March that it ended “the uncertainty around the team and the speed with which it has happened represents a huge vote of confidence in our future”.

Back in December I wrote how the potential departure of Sky highlighted a central issue with the economic model of the sport, where even one of its most successful teams could be faced with disappearing from existence.

I do not think it unkind to suggest the cycling team would have put its own survival at the top of its priorities list, rather than focusing on ethical issues.

I can understand why a campaigner issued a statement this week stating that oil and gas companies should be banned from sponsoring sport, following on from a ban on tobacco. But you can look beyond Ineos and the oil giant Total, who will become a future sponsor of the Direct Energie team, to find other issues.

For instance, human rights groups have previously expressed concerns over the Bahrain Government’s backing of the Bahrain-Merida team.

It is not just cycling that has issues regarding its sponsorships.

If you switch to football, there are countless clubs and leagues whose main sponsors are gambling companies. Add in the repeated adverts prior, during and after matches and it is no surprise that some people have problems with gambling.

Others will have sponsorship income coming from alcohol companies, while some will be partnered with car manufactures, who produce oil guzzling vehicles.

English Premier League club Arsenal even received criticism earlier this year for a multi-million pound commercial agreement with Rwanda over a sleeve sponsorship, given the income was coming from a country which had received over $1 billion (£760million/€890 million) in foreign aid and development assistance in 2016 alone. 

The International Olympic Committee itself had long-standing partnership with fast food giant McDonald’s, which ended after 32 years in 2017. The agreement was the clearest example you could get of conflicting messages, with the Olympics having athletes at the height of fitness, while fast food has been viewed as a major contributor to crisis around obesity.

All these sponsorships are both understandable and uncomfortable.

Can sporting bodies and teams really be blamed for taking the cash which can be used to preserve and improve their teams or sustain events long into the future? While it would be welcome for teams and organisations to take a strong stance over who they deem acceptable partners, can we really expect them to do so?

Would it be possible for governing bodies to intervene with rules around what is considered an ethical sponsorship to have, taking a leaf out of the book of my former university.

Just as the player from the Kent University team pointed out, our approach is often inconsistent about what is deemed to be an inappropriate sponsor. So, a governing body could well find themselves in an impossible situation should they start trying to police the issue. Besides, they would likely be reducing the amount of money in their sport if they did so, with the sums likely to head elsewhere.

Whether we like it or not companies will continue to put money into sport and sporting bodies and teams will continue to take it. And sometimes these agreements will not be to our liking.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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