When sports sponsorship crosses the line

Posted on 14 Nov 2022

By Denis Moriarty, group managing director, Our Community

Australian Diamonds netballer Donnell Wallam celebrates her winning goal against England at the height of the Hancock Prospecting sponsorship controversy. Picture: Mark Evans via Getty Images.

Cricket captain Pat Cummins pulls out of appearing in advertisements for Alinta, a Cricket Australia sponsor. Netball Australia players lose $15 million because players are concerned about sponsor Hancock Prospecting’s record on Indigenous affairs. The Darwin Festival drops Santos as a sponsor. Some Dockers fans are trying to pressure the club to dump Woodside.

Sportspeople are getting much more vociferous about their views on the people whose names are on their shirts. Good for them. Clubs sell sponsorships, after all, on the basis that the connection will help the sponsoring company. If you don’t want to help Alinta, Woodside, or Hancock, or other companies that you believe are threatening the survival of human life on earth, why should you?

Well, the old answer would be ‘Because you’re paid to’, but that rather underplays the way the concept of reputation has morphed over recent decades. People – most people – are a lot more judgemental than they used to be, and this has consequences across the board.

It’s not just that people are more quick to condemn what they see as bad policy or bad politics. They’re quicker to denounce not only the bad guys but also their allies, their enablers, and their friends and acquaintances. They’re trying to shift the culture.

Denis CIC19
Our Community group managing director Denis Moriarty

Where is the line? Do we object to the sponsorship of the local footy club by the butcher that sells red meat, or by the car dealership that hasn’t shifted its business to EVs, or by the town’s bottle shop?

The anti-tobacco movement, which represents the most unambiguously successful behaviour change movement of the last half-century, worked along the lines of shifting the culture. It used to be routine for cigarettes to be advertised on TV. When that was banned, the tobacco companies fell back to the less obtrusive method of sponsoring sporting bodies.

Later on, that went too (and there was an intermediate stage where health agencies like VicHealth bought out tobacco sponsorships so that sport didn’t suffer as much), and now smoking is gradually sliding down the scale of objectionability from being more or less like spitting to being more like drunk driving.

Sports were important then both as straightforward advertising channels and as the arenas where society’s conflicts could be embodied. They still are.

Tobacco sponsorship, though, was aimed directly at changing the behaviour of the spectators – at priming them to smoke. Coal industry sponsorship isn’t aimed at selling spectators coal. Both campaigns involve what’s known as the social licence to operate, but with mining it’s at one remove.

To operate, Gina Rinehart’s Hancock needs not only a social licence but also a large number of very specific legal licenses, and for these it needs to be on the right side of Australian governments. Australian governments will be less ready to smooth the path of Hancock enterprises if they believe that favours to Hancock will get up the nose of Australian voters. The lower Hancock’s reputation, the more ready governments will be to raise its taxes and impose restrictions on its operations.

Mind you, this has a distinct David and Goliath vibe to it. Hancock is a behemoth. With the support of the Liberals, it was able under Julia Gillard to veto a government bid for a super profits tax – one that would have come in very handy in addressing today’s deficits – and help roll a prime minister into the bargain. Australians are used to vast predatory corporations ripping us off, and feel grateful to any billionaires who are prepared to trickle down on us.

Australian politicians have the added incentive that they get trickled on a lot more than the rest of us. Political donations and private generosities go far to persuading them that top executives are fine fellows (sadly still mostly men) who can be trusted to police themselves.

Against this huge and constant pressure, the preferences of sportspeople can seem trivial. They’re not. Australians appreciate courage, and they can recognise sacrifice. The fact that Netball Australia has stuck by its players even though that meant dropping $15 million has given it a credibility that few other Australian institutions can boast.

Victoria’s tourism platform Visit Victoria soon saw an opportunity, fended off other offers to sign a new $15 million sponsorship deal with the team.

More generally, the discussion is leading to questions as to whether Australian culture should be so reliant on the whims of the very rich – whether, even, the very rich are in themselves such a good idea. Australia has no inheritance taxes, and Ms Rinehart’s $31 billion will eventually give a whole new generation of mine-owners the ability to perpetuate her values, for better or for worse.

If Australia’s magnates are giving of their plenty because they sincerely believe that it’s the right thing to do, they’ll presumably go on doing it anonymously even if they don’t get their names on the team livery. If, as is rather more likely, they’re in it for what they can get out of it, then they can hardly complain about people who don’t want them to profit.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise helping the country's 600,000 not-for-profits.

This commentary was first published in Australian Community Media titles around the country. Look for more Our Community comment in your local edition.

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