Let’s start by addressing an uncomfortable truth, the old elephant in the sponsorship room – sponsors use partnerships to make money for their business, either directly or indirectly. Not unreasonably, rights holders want something in return for using their property as a means to drive engagement with their fan base.

Put in such plain and stark terms, this all seems fairly logical. Much like a billboard or an advert, sports sponsorship is a means of communicating with a specific, targeted audience.

That is the basic nature of the sponsorship industry. Activations, campaigns and content all contribute to the same goal: getting customers to buy more product(s).

Procter & Gamble, for example, are a TOP Olympic sponsor not because the marketing and sponsorship teams harbour dreams of seeing little kiddies grow into dominating athletes (helped by their mums) but because they want to sell more bottles of Ariel detergent.

Irrespective of our views on this, we are all adult enough to accept that this is the way of the (sporting) world. However, should our moral compass guide us, the sporting industry, in deciding with whom we should partner?

For decades, the IOC was more than happy to take McDonald’s money whilst promoting a fit and active lifestyle in the next breath. Formula 1 remains more than happy to take the tens of millions of dollars Heineken pays them to partner with a global driving series.

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Recently, the English FA has been praised and held up as a bastion of morality for walking away from their partnership with bookmakers Ladbrokes and the $4m annual cheque. This praise somewhat ignores the fact that the deal was signed in 2016 at a time when plenty of footballers had already been treated for gambling addictions yet the FA was still prepared to take Ladbrokes’ money in the first place. 

It took a serious conduct issue, namely footballer Joey Barton being caught betting against his own team, to make the FA act. Moreover, while the FA was applauded for taking such a principled stand, at least nine Premier League teams have a front of shirt partnership with betting brands. These sorts of double standards pervade the sports industry as a whole.

England’s FA only ended its Ladbrokes deal after Joey Barton’s indiscretions came to light

Big brands are not blind to the nature of some of their sponsorship agreements. Like many other deals, Heineken’s arrangement with F1 is promoted as a partnership where both sides of the deal highlight what they are doing to prevent their audience from drinking and driving. The aim of this strategy is to attempt to minimise the questioning about where the money comes from. However, it is important to remember that Heineken are in the business of selling beer, not road safety. Heineken understand that partnering with F1 will provide them with a benefit: selling more beer. If adding a CSR element will help to negate poor PR and promote the partnership, then surely this is worthwhile for both rights-holder and brand.

CSR programmes supporting communities and grassroots are also often seen as an effective way of highlighting the moral good a sponsor can provide – McDonalds has followed this strategy for years across its various partnerships. It is heartening to see that despite these schemes, fast food restaurants are still questioned about their involvement in sport.

As much as the likes of Heineken can be criticised for signing sponsorship deals, the moral responsibility for a deal surely lies with the property owner? If F1 are happy to take the money, why shouldn’t Heineken offer it? It is highly unlikely that F1 was concerned about a deal with Heineken considering the likes of Jonny Walker have sponsored the sport for years, and its own moral compass did not twitch when signing race hosting agreements with Bahrain, Azerbaijan and China, three nations with somewhat lax stances towards the promotion of human rights.

Should we expect better from the industry as a whole? Should the likes of Manchester United stand up and say no to a partnership with Uber, a company with questions to answer when it comes to sexual harassment of female employees and users, and as well as dubious employment practices? This matters, especially in a sport where the growth of the women’s game is in stark focus alongside the use of migrant workers in building stadia for Qatar 2022.

It is well past time that we as an industry, and as fans, stand up and ask more difficult questions about the sponsors who fund the sports we love and care about. We should care where this money comes from.

With the cost involved in running teams and competitions, sponsors are now an essential part of sport, providing funding for teams and athletes to pursue their dreams, and to ultimately entertain us. However, this should not preclude scrutiny and it is well past time that we as an industry, and as fans, stand up and ask more difficult questions about the sponsors who fund the sports we love and care about. We should care where this money comes from.

Sport has a track record of taking a moral stand. From Muhammad Ali standing against the Vietnam War to numerous teams and organisations boycotting apartheid era South Africa, the sporting world has taken the lead in demanding social change before.

High profile sporting events can reach and influence billions, something no other form of media can claim to achieve. This was recently highlighted by Andy Murray when correcting a sexist line of questioning from a reporter at Wimbledon for which he was rightly applauded the world over.

In contrast, TV presenter John Inverdale lost his high profile role hosting Wimbledon coverage on the BBC when using derogatory language about former champion Marion Bartoli. Sadly, it seems we rarely apply those same moral standards to rights-holders when analysing the partnerships they enter into.

Questioning the morality of sponsorship deals more regularly is overdue and the obligation is on us, as an industry and as sports fans, to ask uncomfortable questions of rights-holders and brands.