Player power and sponsorship hazards

Player power and sponsorship hazards

Credit: AFP

Athlete Challenges

Over the last 12 months there have been a number of occurrences of athletes being at odds with sponsors –

  • Kylian Mbappe refused to take part in sponsorship activations as part of his membership of the French national team. He raised concerns about fast food and betting companies being associated with the team,
  • The Australian Women’s netball team lost an AU$15m (US$9.6m) sponsorship deal after an indigenous member of the national team raised concerns about comments made about Australia’s indigenous people by the sponsoring company founder. Additional concerns were also raised around the sponsor’s previous environmental management approach,
  • During the Euro20 tournament France’s Paul Pogba removed a Heineken bottle placed in front of him at a press conference; while Christian Ronaldo moved a Coke bottle resulting in a US$4bn drop in the value of shares in the company (which later rebounded),
  • British Cycling has been subject to significant criticism of their sponsorship deal with Shell based on environmental concerns, ultimately resulting in the departure of the CEO.

In the first two cases, the principal players were backed by their team mates and, in the case of the French national team, the players and coach asked to be consulted on potential commercial partnerships.

This trend is likely to continue as athletes take stronger stands on issues surrounding their sports and wider societal issues. There is evidence of an emerging view amongst sports stars that their sport wouldn’t exist without them and, as sponsors sign to be associated with them, they should have an input into their sport’s commercial choices, or at least be able to recuse themselves where the sponsors don't align with their values or beliefs.

Sponsor hazards

For sponsors this raises two areas where they need to focus.

The first is political and cultural due diligence on the targets with which they wish to be associated. Not only whether the team, sport, or individual fits with the sponsor's strategic positioning, but also whether there may be pushback from associated stakeholders which could create negative commentary. There are several industries where this may need to be more robust including alcohol, betting, and mining companies. We have already seen the almost complete removal of cigarette and nicotine sponsors from sport and the failure of other industries to engage more effectively may lead them down a similar path.

The second is having an effective and proactive crisis management approach in place should issues arise. Sponsors should have a response plan that can be put in place quickly to change (or at least manage) the arising conversations better.

In the case of Netball Australia, the controversial comments were some 40 years old. The daughter of the founder now controls the company and withdrew the money from the national team and other netball teams not connected with the issue. There was an opportunity for her to put in place a much stronger commentary around the significant number of initiatives the company has undertaken with indigenous communities in recent years. If they had done this while maintaining their sponsorship, they could have changed the dynamic of the story from problematic to positive.  

Just 10 days later a new sponsor came on board for Netball Australia which was of equal value and garnered significant positive publicity for the new sponsor. They gained increased deal exposure off the back of the public discussion surrounding the issues of the original sponsorship.


As we see the emergence of increased player power, particularly where an individual has their own significant profile or where collective positions of whole teams are taken, sponsors will need to be more thoughtful about how they engage with sports and more prepared for issues that may arise as a result. Failure to do so will result in more negative commentary which alienates the rightsholder the sponsor is associated with plus broader groups within the sport’s followers.

If your company may be impacted by any of the issues raised above, IPSEM Squared can help you navigate the sponsorship environment.

Talk to us to learn more

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