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Sponsorship can help carbon polluters clean up their act

Sponsorship can help carbon polluters clean up their act

The sports sponsorship sector has had a tough time of late. The overhanging impact of COVID-19, the impending betting sponsorship ban, and now the call for high-carbon sponsorship deals to be dropped. It’s a challenging period to say the least.

Earlier this week a report published by the New Weather Institute think tank, climate charity Possible and the Rapid Transition Alliance, stated that high-carbon polluters in sports advertising and sponsorship should be dropped. “Today the world faces a climate emergency and sport is floating on a sea of high-carbon sponsorship.” Quite the eye-catching statement we think you’d agree, but is it a valid one and is the report right to call for the end of high-carbon partners?  

Perhaps we start by looking at the practicality of the reports urge for rights holders to drop carbon polluting sponsorship deals. As we’ve seen via the fallout of the potential gambling sponsorship ban, the impact of this alone could be disastrous for a vast number of teams. According to English Football League Chairman Rick Parry, the betting ban could be “catastrophic” with more than £40m of annual revenue at stake for Championship clubs alone

Arguably the combined sum of money being pumped into global sport by the high-carbon polluters is a far larger amount than that of betting companies, so the removal of this would have an insurmountable impact on the sports industry. Unless you are a top tier rights holder (Manchester United being a case in point with the brands it had lined up for its front-of-shirt deal) then you don’t have the luxury of being able to quickly and easily replace one high level partner with another.

Like the betting ban, it can’t be an overnight change, because if that does happen then you can say goodbye to many sports teams, leagues and events around the world. From an external perspective it’s sometimes easy to suggest the removal of something for the good of society, but actually many livelihoods are dependent on the income from sports sponsorship.

Away from the practicalities of the suggested ‘dropping of partners’ there is arguably a dangerous tarnishing of all automotive, aviation, oil and gas companies with the same brush. By taking automotive companies for what they have been in the past, and assuming that’s what they always will be and still stand for, is somewhat naïve.

As an example, Toyota uses its Olympic and Paralympic association as a way to showcase the car giant’s evolution from an automotive manufacturer to a mobility company. This statement of intent is disappointingly perceived by the report as Toyota going to great lengths to position themselves more broadly in line with their sponsorships. In that respect, reports like this hurt companies that are actively trying to make a real change and using sponsorship as a platform to demonstrate this.

You see that’s the thing, sponsorship as a platform can be used for good, and it can be used with purpose to make a genuinely positive impact on society. Just because an automotive or oil company has a history of being a high-carbon polluter doesn’t mean they should be banished form sponsorship forever. In our purpose-driven world where companies are more aware of their social responsibility, they are wise to the concerns of consumers, and sports partnerships are a way of getting this message across. They must, however, be supported by real, impactful, purpose-led activations.

In the same ballpark as betting brands and carbon polluters are alcohol brands and fast food outlets. Is it irresponsible to be promoting these companies to a society trying to stamp down on obesity and alcoholism? Probably, but thankfully because they haven’t been banned, it has meant that the brands themselves have had to change their messaging for the good of society. Heineken’s F1-led ‘When You Drive, Never Drink’ campaign being a good example of this.

Do we think clamping down on the high-carbon sponsorships is a good thing? Yes, we do, every industry has a role to play, and the sports sponsorship sector should be no different. Do we think that all past or current high-carbon polluters should be put in the same bucket and dropped from all current and future partnerships? No, each scenario should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Rights holders should want to work with brands that align to their values and messaging, and brands should want to demonstrate their purpose and social responsibility through an effective partnership. Therefore, what needs to happen is a collaboration and transparent conversation at the very start of a sponsorship discussion. Rights holders need to implement clearer strategies and have firmer brand integration guidelines in place, and brands need to be aware of this and only enter partnerships where they can fulfil these expectations. Sponsorship can be a powerful platform for change, but for the full force of it to be felt it requires rights holders and brands working together to achieve their joint objectives. Dropping what are classified as high-carbon polluters would be a devastating blow for the sponsorship industry, and a harsh hit for those brands truly trying to make a change. With stricter guidelines and closer collaboration, rights holders and brands can work together to make a difference. This potent combination has the power to fuel the future for the sports sponsorship industry.