‘Money Talks’: How Sports Washing Became Tournament Advertisers’ Biggest Problem


As part of The Drum’s Sports Marketing Deep Dive, we examine the impact of brand proximity to sportswashing, from the World Cup in Qatar to LIV Golf.

You’ve heard of greenwashing, but what about sportswashing? A term popularized by Amnesty International in 2018, it has come to describe the use of sport by harmful organizations to legitimize their causes and mask their true impact.

It has been around much longer than that. As early as the 1930s and 1940s, the FIFA World Cups held in Italy and Germany were used to spread propaganda for the regimes of Mussolini and Hitler.

German soccer players protesting against the FIFA World Cup in Qatar / Image via Reuters

More recently, the announcement of hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar drew heavy criticism due to the Saudi government’s human rights record, such as the criminalization of homosexuality, as well as than the appalling treatment it gives to migrant workers. help the city prepare for the tournament (it is estimated that more than 400 Nepali workers have died in construction in Qatar since the World Cup bid was won).

But the sporting wash in football runs deep, from former Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich’s affiliations with Vladimir Putin to Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF) ownership of Newcastle United and the home of Emirates Stadium. ‘Arsenal.

“The balance of the game is being massively shifted in terms of power by money from dubious sources,” says Rob Norman, Piano manager and former Group M chief executive, who spoke recently during a panel at Vivatech Paris against the prevalence of advertisers supporting unethical actions. sports adventures.

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As for sports governing bodies like Fifa, Norman says they “allow money from dodgy facilities to actually influence the competitive nature of the game they oversee”.

Dark Horses chief strategy officer Matt Readman agrees that managing directors have followed the money when it comes to sports sponsorship. “With the rapid rise of professional sports in the 2000s, the focus for sports CEOs and boards was to make money,” he says. “Many rights holders have made questionable decisions in search of profitability.”

The problem now is that broader marketing has changed over the past decade. “Rightly or wrongly, brands are increasingly driven by purpose and seen as doing the right thing,” Readman adds. “Brands have to be very careful not to get caught on the wrong side. Their objective and that of the rights holder may not be the same.

It’s not just football

Of course, the issue is not only in football. According to Conscious Ad Network co-founder Jake Dubbins, sportwashing “follows the money.”

“It’s prevalent in football, golf, Formula 1 and even tennis, which is sponsored by huge banks like HSBC, which had to pay a $1.9 billion fine for transferring the money Mexican drug cartels.”

Readman cites the LIV golf tournament as a prime example of a sport beyond football where sportswashing is prevalent due to its support by the Saudis. “It’s not just corporate wealth that flows easily through it, but the role it plays in lubricating the cogs of the financial machine. Saudi Arabia’s game to wrest control of the PGA goes beyond reputation – it’s also about influence and control.

He says Formula 1 is different in that it’s the ultimate show of glitz and glamour. But “a race that puts a city on the map” can be an endorsement for any place it takes place. “It legitimizes the locations as part of an elite global circuit,” he says, and that thinking can even be applied to global events as big as the Olympics.

How to clean it

In terms of resolving the issue, Norman says that in future he would like to see the sport’s governing bodies tighten their standards on who sponsors and where they hold tournaments, but adds that this does not resolve not necessarily the issue of brand locking. in multi-year sponsorship deals before knowing where the tournaments are taking place.

What they control, he says, is their presence and the amount they spend on activations. “I don’t mean you can offset human rights costs like carbon emissions, but you can divert that money to rolling out plans at the local level.

“What about investing in underrepresented sports, like field hockey or swimming, or addressing serious gender bias in mainstream sports? It will become a trajectory chamber. When you relax from one way of doing things, you can find yourself in another.

Dubbins agrees that brands need to be careful about so-called “compensation” for unethical affiliations. He calls the support brands have shown sports professionals who come out as LGBTQ+, for example, as “total hypocrisy and contradiction” when they then sponsored tournaments in countries that criminalize homosexuality.

But the question remains, how strong are brands? Dubbins thinks they should take a tougher stance. “Granted they may be tied to contracts before tournament venues are announced, but are you posting on social media and donating to a relevant charity? Or is that something you’re going to assume correctly?”

“In my opinion, you are either in favor of inclusiveness, sustainability and creating a better society for all, or you support oppressive regimes. You can’t do both.

As for the repercussions of the brand’s proximity to sports washing, Readman says that if they fail to clarify their position on these issues, the risk is huge. “A partnership is an official endorsement – a shortcut to what your brand is. Brands invest millions in partnerships to improve their perception, but it goes both ways. If a sporting event becomes tainted in the eyes of fans, this toxicity also carries over to the brand.

“On the one hand, sport is about defending social causes and pushing us to make decisions that respect the environment, to be more tolerant and to take better charge of ourselves. But these principles disappear as soon as there are benefits to be gained from partnering with “bad actors” or expanding competition. This calls into question why social cause campaigns and hashtags are displayed in the first place.

Not to mention that the public is increasingly expressing its disapproval. The strong reactions from fans and 9/11 victims to American golfers who signed up for the LIV series are proof of that, he says. “I think the animosity surprised many, including several players themselves. Similarly, Western football fans are clearly unhappy with the World Cup in Qatar.

“But are they upset because they oppose Qatar’s human rights record or because it has winterized and, as traveling supporters, their freedom will be severely limited?” It’s hard to say.”

All parties agree that the cognitive dissonance between the public’s contempt for hypocrisy and loyalty to beloved teams and players poses the greatest threat to removing the filth of sportwashing, but brands could play a role in it. setting standards and using their presence to speak out against unethical practices. sports sponsorship practices, because “we shouldn’t assume that all fans care,” Readman says.

The solution? “While formal partnerships clearly have their benefits, brands are increasingly considering being on the other side of the fence – that is, not being an official sponsor,” he says. “There they can operate in the relatively safer haven of not being ‘officially’ contaminated. I’m not talking old-fashioned hacking, but these days it’s easier than ever to connect with fans around a major event.

The problem that remains is that for so many of these sports, the heritage money is tied up. As Dubbins concludes, “Business as a force for good obviously has its place, but unfortunately in this world, money talks.”

Check out The Drum’s latest Deep Dive, The New Sports Marketing Playbook, and learn the tactics employed by the world’s biggest sports organizations and their star athletes to stay on top of their game.

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