Latest issue
Online newsletter
Product Knowledge
Sports sponsorship

Skins chairman Jaimie Fuller (left) and Travis Tygart, USADA CEO (right)

March 2014

Responsible sponsorship

South African companies spent about R4.5-bn on sponsorships in 2012, which gives them considerable financial clout when dealing with sport federations, athletes and other beneficiaries. Sponsors should use their financial power to ensure better governance, accountability and fair competition from the athletes and federations they fund, is becoming a mantra heard at conferences across the world. Trudi du Toit explains why.

Lie with the dogs and stand up with the fleas, the Romans said. Translated into sport terms it means: associate with an unethical sports body, team or athlete, and everybody will assume you’re just as crooked.

Sponsors know that they should distance themselves from athletes and teams caught doing wrong. But, in ever louder voices, they are being urged to demand accountability from administrators and athletes and play a pro-active role to keep sport fair and drug-free. Taking it a step further: monetary rewards from sponsors contribute to the win-at-all -cost attitude of some administrators, athletes and coaches, which could lead to unethical practices like cheating and doping. Sponsors should therefore take responsibility for what is done with the monetary rewards they offer.

This was a recurring theme touched on by several speakers at the I Play Fair Sports Law Conference held in Cape Town in November last year. For example:

  • “Commercialisation of sport can lead to a conflict with ethics,” said prof James Nafziger, Director of International Law at the Willamette University in Oregon. The role of corporate power in sport is ever increasing — as demonstrated by the millions in sponsorship dollars that motivated athletes like Lance Armstrong to do anything it takes to win, and this can become problematic when sponsors put pressure on athletes to win, or turn a blind eye to ethical violations, he cautioned.
  • The resources spent to develop innovative products and initiatives from corporations are some of the factors that can influence professional athletes to abuse substances that will keep their sporting success dreams alive — and help them to do the jobs for which they are paid, said prof Cora Burnett, research professor at the University of Johannesburg. The pressure to perform at all times and not letting the team down can contribute to substance abuse.
  • “The financial incentives alone make it easy for us to see how elite athletes and management are sometimes tempted to break the rules,” said lawyer and former CEO of the International Netball Federation, Urvasi Naidoo. “But, if a sport cannot guarantee integrity at elite level, commercial sponsors, as well as the fans and media, will eventually abandon the sport.
  • Sponsors who keep on supporting an athlete or governing body that is corrupt, is “guilty by association,” Skins chairman Jaimie Fuller said. “What is the point of Skins selling products to enhance performance and recovery to people who compete at any level, if they believe the top-level sport we’re supporting is rotten to the core? It’s guilt by association and it makes no sense at all.”

Changing Cycling

Fuller became a global champion for good governance and anti-doping in sport when he demonstrated that even a relatively small sponsor can change the well-entrenched leadership of a powerful federation, like the International Cycling Union (UCI).

In the wake of the Lance Armstrong indictment by the US anti-doping association, USADA, Fuller drew the ire of former UCI presidents Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen when he cheekily sued them for $2-m for bringing the sport into disrepute. This devalued Skins’ sponsorship of a major cycling team, he argued.

This got their attention, all right, and in a vicious blog, McQuaid vs Cookson, the integrity of Fuller and Brian Cookson (who successfully challenged McQuaid for the presidency) were repeatedly attacked. Ironically, Fuller had originally believed in Armstrong’s innocence. But, he became aggrieved as a commercial partner by the attacks by the UCI, and especially McQuaid, on USADA and its CEO Travis Tygart, instead of investigating the accusations against Armstrong. Especially, after he read the evidence.

“I was waiting for the proper sponsors to step in and do something.” When none spoke up, Fuller realised that it was up to him to do something. “I had this naive perspective that people in responsible roles are primarily there to administer a sport.”

In response, Fuller and other concerned people founded Change Cycling Now (CCN) in December 2012, which played an active role in the bruising election campaign that resulted in McQuaid and friends being ousted from running the UCI in September 2013.

CCN, for example, helped fund court cases —inter alia of Irish journalist Pat Krimmage, who was sued for libel by McQuaid — and started a magazine, Abnormal, to present an alternative view to the attacks from the McQuaid-camp. Skins’ marketing budget contributed, although Fuller tried to keep the brand’s involvement at a minimum.

“When we were forming CCN, there was no Skins visible, because I was very sensitive to keeping the brand out,” says Fuller. “There were whispers that it was just a publicity stunt to sell Skins, but this (the campaign) was so important that I didn’t want to devalue it by accusations of commercialisation.” It created tension between him and the Skins management team who were not so convinced that this corporate responsibility initiative (CSI) justified the use of marketing funds, Fuller admits.

Despite continuously being told that “you’ll never get anything done. The system is too big” McQuaid was denied a third term as president by a mere three votes. “There is no question that the UCI will change. The reality of what the new guys are trying to put in place is enormous,” says Fuller. “This is a chance to take the sport with the worst reputation and change it over a period.” He believes cycling can become an example for other sport.

Responsibility brands

Since then, Fuller became a regular speaker at international conferences on sport governance — for example, before coming to Cape Town last year he spoke at the 8th Play the Game Conference in Aarhus, Denmark, on Why corporate sponsors should engage in sports governance.

There was growing concern from sponsors at this conference about being aligned to international federations who are just grabbing more power, says Fuller. He believes there are ways that sponsors can work together to exert their financial clout in order to keep federations on the right track, and is working on a plan to set this in motion.

Sport brands are especially vulnerable when they associate themselves with unethical federations, he believes. While the reputations of big brands like Sony or Coca-Cola would not really be affected if the reputation of the federation they are associated is tarnished, the damage to a sports brand could be enormous.

Sponsor dollars are being reduced all over the world — it is becoming harder for all federations to get sponsorships — and therefore sponsors should demand to see how the federation is conducting its business and spend their money, he argues.

Brands aligning themselves to a sport federation should consider this a CSI initiative, rather than marketing exercise, and therefore play an active role to ensure that they are associated with a clean and wholesome product, Fuller told delegates at the Sports Law Conference.

In a follow-up newsletter he wrote: I believe sponsors can no longer pay for the exposure a sponsorship package will give them and then calmly sit back and simply wait for the association to benefit their business. There’s no point in operating commercially if you’re not prepared to stand up for every athlete and sports fan who wants to watch, or take part, in a fair contest.

Pure Sport

After leaving Cape Town, Fuller and Ben Johnson — the Canadian 100m world champion who was stripped of his titles when he tested positive in the Seoul Olympics in 1988 — spoke at a Sport versus Crime conference in Dubai. There, more than 50 participants from 25 countries discussed how to create sport without crime, and how sport can combat crime.

This was part of the Skins Pure Sport campaign, aimed at improving sport governance and empowering athletes to stay clean and honest. This time, Skins is fully on board. Because Johnson’s disgrace was such a memorable occurrence, Fuller last year chose him to accompany him on a tour to the UK, Canada, US, Australia and Japan to promote anti-doping, ending in Seoul on the 25th anniversary of the historical event.

Apart from the fact that he knew that Johnson would have much more impact than some clean-cut kid preaching anti-doping, they also wanted to get the message across that after 25 years, nothing much had changed to help athletes overcome the temptation of doping to enhance their performance. If anything, it is worse than before, Johnson said.

Dubbed the #ChooseTheRightTrack initiative, Johnson participated because he was part of the problem, and therefore wanted to be part of the solution. “I spent five weeks with Johnson and I’m very proud of that campaign,” says Fuller. “I hope in ten years’ time he will look back and say I made a change for good.”

Sponsors of SA sport federations

South Africa’s biggest sport federations have unequal success in attracting sponsors. Some have been punished by withdrawal of sponsorships, while others, that attract high TV viewership, get new sponsors despite concerns about issues of governance.

Athletics SA: The federation was recently unsuspended by SASCOC so that athletes can participate in the Commonwealth Games in July, but it is still unclear which of the boards may legally run ASA. The federation’s website is not functioning and no news about sponsors — if any — are available.

Cricket SA: adidas, Castle Lager, Blue Label, Sunfoil, KFC, TM Lewin, Ram, Powerade, Budget, Coca Cola, Momentum Health, Cell C and SuperSport.

Golf Association of SA: Technical sponsor Titleist, other sponsors: Indwe, Sanlam, Tempest and Volvo.

Netball SA: Name sponsor Spar. Other: Tsogo Sun. Technical sponsors Asics and Mitre.

SA Football Association: ABSA and Puma withdrew sponsorship last year around the time when SAFA administrators suspended after match-fixing allegations were re-appointed. Nike recently became sponsor and supplier. Other: Castle Lager (Bafana Bafana), Sasol (Banyana Banyana), and Sasol, Nedbank and SAB are league sponsors. EY, Energade and Tsogo Sun are suppliers.

SA Hockey Association: Sponsors: Investec and Mugg & Bean. Suppliers: adidas and Mr Price Sports. Other: BDO, BSN Medical, Tsogo Sun, Virgin Active.

SA Rugby Union: Asics, ABSA, BMW and SAA are Tier 1 Springbok sponsors. Vodacom, Energade, Shield, Tsogo Sun and Castle Lager are Tier 2 Associate sponsors. Additional 11 other sponsors, including Gilbert as a supplier.

Swimming South Africa: Without a main corporate sponsor after Telkom did not renew their R11-m sponsorship. Arena is the technical sponsor. Lack of funds resulted in swimmers and water polo players asked to fund international participation — water polo team members asked to pay R270 000 to participate in Commonwealth championship in April.

Tennis SA: Sponsored by Keyhealth. Technical sponsors: Babolat, Dunlop, Prince, Slazenger and Wilson.

*Read our copyright notice before making use of this article

© SA Sports Trader