Can ethics coexist with corporate sponsorships?

Communications, Corporate Affairs, Engagement, Investor Relations, Politics

Chris Leitch 25 Oct 2022
4 mins
Australian Diamonds netball players huddling during a recent game against New Zealand

Sponsoring a sporting team or an event is one of the oldest and most effective ways for a business to strengthen connections with the community and gain exposure.

A corporate logo on a uniform or signage along a sideline creates brand awareness, while ratings agency Nielsen found 81% of people trust a sponsor at a sporting event far more than influencer, TV, video or social media advertising.

As many as 85% of consumers are likely to purchase a product or service after participating in a branded event of experience.

That trust delivers great weight to the power of professional athletes in endorsing products or people, and the bigger the sport, the greater the exposure and pulling power.

It should also be noted that some of these major corporations contribute much more than just sponsoring a sporting team, they fund the delivery of much-needed health and education services in regional towns, provide accommodation for police officers and support the arts.

Despite this, as we have seen in recent weeks, this sponsorship can come at a price, raising the question of whether ethics can coexist with corporate sponsorships.

As a subset of celebrity culture, the commentary and actions of sports professionals are highly scrutinised by media and by extension, consumers.

Conversely, it also means high exposure when they make a controversial or political statement, because the audience and the media are listening.

Professional sport sponsorship has been front and centre this week after players took a public stance against what they perceive to be organisations that do not align with their personal values.

Netball Australia is looking for new sponsors after Hancock Prospecting withdrew its funding, following Indigenous netballer Donnell Wallam indicating she was not comfortable being associated with the brand.

The 28-year-old’s concerns relate to Gina Rinehart’s late father Lang Hancock’s television interview in the 1980s, in which he stated that sterilisation should be used to solve ‘the Aboriginal problem’.

It also emerged this week that Australian Test cricket captain Pat Cummins would no longer appear in advertising linked to natural gas supplier Alinta Energy, a sponsor of Cricket Australia.

In the AFL, former Western Australian premier Carmen Lawrence led calls for the Fremantle Dockers to ditch its major sponsor, oil and gas producer Woodside Energy.

Fremantle-born author and playwright Tim Minchin, also a Dockers supporter and a vocal opponent of fossil fuel use, articulated the conundrum on ABC Radio, saying that if ending Woodside’s sponsorship would result in the corporation transitioning faster to clean energy, then he supported that.

But he said it was not clear that would be the outcome – it could be people were just making themselves feel better by calling for the sponsorship to end.

“If it is the case that by giving up that corporate sponsorship we put pressure on those corporations to quickly transition to sustainable energy, then do it,” Minchin said.

Tim Minchin at a speaking engagement

Tim Minchin has questioned whether pressuring organisations to pull sponsorship can enact meaningful change. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“If that is not the case, and you are …. reacting to a sense that something is hypocritical, I don’t care if things are hypocritical, I am much more interested in the utility of things.”

The machinations of the past week reinforces that sponsorship is more than just signage and it must be backed by a communications strategy that assesses threats as well as opportunities.

That may mean confronting and addressing risks created by the exposure that sponsorship affords, such as questions that might arise about past or present business activities, or whether there is a potential clash with personal beliefs.

Issues may take some work to iron out but they are not insurmountable.

Another cricketer, Usman Khawaja, has forged a 10-year career with the national team despite personal objections to alcohol sponsorship, which clashes with his personal beliefs as a Muslim.

Yet Carlton and United Breweries and other alcohol firms have long been financial supporters of Australian cricket.

The power of athletes in professional sport has never been more prominent but sport is also big business, and companies can no longer buy their way in without thinking about potential reputation damage or public blowback. The same challenge is facing the arts and not-for-profit organisations.

In a recent article in the National Indigenous Times relating to criticism of oil and gas producer Santos for sponsoring an Indigenous art event, editor Tom Zaunmayr defended mining companies.

Mr Zaunmayr articulated that many mining companies had pumped billions of dollars into Pilbara towns in exchange for their social license to operate, keeping the arts afloat, providing job opportunities and improving infrastructure.

One example is iron ore giant BHP, which has a large partnership with arts organisation FORM, which supports Aboriginal artists in the Pilbara through funding for the Spinifex Hill Studio.

“Northern Australia does not have the population needed to sustain Indigenous art galleries and programs, and most First Nations artists don’t have the huge resources needed to promote themselves in the crowded global marketplace,” Mr Zaunmayr wrote.

“(Corporate sponsorship) is not hush money, it is a sign of companies doing exactly what we have asked them to do – supporting our communities in return for taking our resources.”

One thing is clear, the debate will continue as corporations, sporting clubs, artists and not-for-profits navigate the brave new world of sponsorship, trying to decide whose money ticks the ESG boxes.

Will it be a fast-food company contributing to global obesity problems? Or will corporations with deep pockets that are not associated with anything that impacts our health, society, or environment emerge to support artists and sporting clubs?


— Written with additional contributions from Wendy Pryer. Photo credit: Origin Diamonds/Facebook

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Chris Leitch More from author

Chris Leitch is an experienced writer and online editor, proficient in producing website content and developing marketing and digital communications strategies and materials.

He puts his skills to work managing writing projects for Purple clients, in addition to working across many parts of the business helping to create content and shape digital marketing ideas.

After completing a Communications degree at Edith Cowan University, Chris cut his journalistic teeth at the NT News and worked at Community Newspapers, News Corp and Seven West Media before moving into marketing communications.

Away from the office, Chris’s main goals are spending time with his girls and finding time to hit the beach, improve his golf and dabble in fantasy sports. He spent many summers bowling inswingers for the Scarborough Cricket Club.

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