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Sports-washing and global sponsorship - the next arena for challenging corporate pollution or moving the goalposts for sports organisations?

As another illustration of the reach of ESG and its importance to all businesses in all sectors, a recent study has made the news for revealing extensive links through sponsorship between 'major polluters' and leading sports teams. These links, the authors claim, demonstrate a deliberate effort by polluting industries to 'sports wash' their role in the climate crisis. 

The study identifies over 250 advertising and sponsorship deals across 13 different sports. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the value of the market and its global appeal, football was found to have the most deals with sponsors including oil and gas corporations and airlines. On the sponsor-side, the car industry was found to be the most active sector (with 199 deals) closely followed by airlines (with 63 deals). 

The authors of the study claim that these 'major polluters' have replaced tobacco companies as sports sponsors, and that, like tobacco companies, such sponsorship should be stopped to prevent harm to people and the planet. The authors point to the role of sport in raising awareness on other global and societal issues such as racism and suggest that sports could now help to push the envelope for action on the climate crisis. 

The study comes at an interesting time for sponsorship in the media and sports sector. In recent years, UK arts and cultural institutions have faced similar pressure regarding their connections to fossil fuel companies, with the Royal Shakespeare Company ending its high-profile sponsorship deal with an oil and gas company in 2019. Restrictions on sports sponsorship by gambling companies are also widely expected to be introduced as a result of the ongoing review of gambling laws in the UK. It will be interesting to see how the sector responds in the coming months. 

Sport has been a gamechanger in raising awareness and rapidly shifting opinions and policy on vital issues ranging from child poverty to racism. Now it could be set to do the same for climate change.


sports, sponsorship, advertising, esg, climate crisis