Sportswashing: How mining and energy companies sponsor your favorite sports to help clean up their image

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While greenwashing used to be the tactic of choice for companies trying to hide their negative impact on the environment, energy and mining companies are now turning to a more subtle marketing tactic to get their brand in front of the public: sportswashing.

Fossil fuels and carbon-intensive industries have an image problem. As awareness of their environmental impact grows, energy and mining companies in particular are desperate to keep growing levels of public esteem in check.

For decades, greenwashing has been a go-to tactic for corporations seeking to mask their damaging effects on natural environments, and governments around the world have begun to legislate against.

However, another more subtle practice remains in the marketing toolbox: sportswashing. By sponsoring sporting teams or events, organizations harness the positive impacts of sport to eliminate negative associations with issues such as environmental degradation and human rights abuses.

In Australia, mining and energy companies often partner with grassroots to elite sports organisations. Like our research showed, sports sponsorship is a powerful way to channel the energy of sports “atmospheres” towards brands, diverting attention from the role of corporations in promoting climate change.

As Australia lands another Ashes series, let’s take a closer look at how official partners like Alinta Energy can benefit from sporting event sponsorship.

How does sports washing work?

Sporting events have long been a site for exercise”sweet power”. Countries hosting the Olympic Games or the FIFA World Cup, for example, can challenge negative global images. Take Qatar: in the run-up to this year’s FIFA World Cup, the country has seized the opportunity to remodel his reputation on a number of issues, including human rights.

Sports sponsorship can serve similar purposes for businesses. Mining and energy giants such as Adani, Rio Tinto, Origin, and wood side all sponsored sports teams and leagues, from local to international level.

Our research shows When companies sponsor sporting events, their brands associate themselves with moods: intense experiences of shared emotions. Over time, sports fans come to associate sponsor logos and names with these experiences, so sponsor brands become reservoirs of this emotional energy, much like batteries.

This benefits businesses because when people feel emotions in relation to a brand, they are more likely to remember that brand and become loyal customers. Simultaneously, these positive emotional associations can distract from problematic corporate links to a range of issues, including climate change and pollution.

Is the tide turning against sportswashing?

In 2021 a critical report found over 250 advertising and sponsorship deals between polluting companies and leading sports teams and organizations around the world.

The report by the New Weather Institute, involved a range of Australian sporting events and leagues, including the Australian Football League, the Australian Baseball League and the Australian Open Tennis 2021.

Some convicts the Australian Open for accepting gas giant Santos as an “official natural gas partner”. And last year, Comms Declare, an advertising and marketing industry body, says the decision was at odds with Tennis Australia’s commitment to the United Nations Sport for Climate Action Framework.

Surf Life Saving Australia has also been critical for accepting sponsorship from gasoline supplier Ampol, not least because the fossil fuel industry threatens the very coastal environments that surf to save lives.

Athletes also join these critical voices. Former Australian rugby captain and environmentalist David Pocock last year criticized Rugby Australia’s decision to accept Santos as the Wallabies’ main sponsor, comparing tobacco company sports sponsorship in the 1980s.

What does this mean for sports sponsors?

As awareness of sportwashing grows, we believe sponsorship deals are likely to generate increasing scrutiny from consumers, investors and other companies. This will have big implications for companies whose sponsorship partnerships are seen as sportwashing.

In recent years, sports fans have protested against sports team owners, as well as event organizers, for a series of questions. Research shows that activism can hurt income and share the prices for companies.

More generally, by creating negative media publicity and government attention, sports activism can negate the intended benefits of sponsorship, further damaging brand image.

In some cases, activists have been able to demand policy reversals. For example, Liverpool FC supporters forced owners to drop ticket price hikes and issue a excuses. Whether activists can bring about change in the environmental washing of sports remains to be seen.

Nonetheless, it may be time for sports governing bodies, event owners and managers to reconsider the contributions of environmentally unsustainable companies. Such sponsorship is at odds with the cultural value of sporting events and the benefits sport brings to all levels of society.

About the authors: Robin Canniford, Management & Marketing Department, The University of Melbourne and Tim Hill, Lecturer in Marketing, University of Bath

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