In terms of global reach and influence, the world of sports is unmatched, and there’s no denying that it’s a big business—a very lucrative one. But just how far will the industry go to make sure they keep earning the big bucks?
Sports have long been embedded into human history. In fact, the first Olympic Games took place in 776 BC. While it was created in honour of the ancient Greek God, Zeus, the essence of sport as being able to bring people from all walks of life together is pretty much unchanged. And as utopian as it may sound, it’s true. For instance, almost 3 billion people around the world tuned in to witness the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said itself that it aims to bring the world together through “peaceful competition.”
While all of this sounds great, there is another factor that has become almost inseparable from sports: money. Whether it’s Roman gladiators and their meagre prize money or Conor McGregor earning a total of $180 million in 2020, there’s no denying the inherent presence and allure of money in sports. But where does all this money come from?
Partnership makes the dream work
As interest in sports continues to grow, so does the market for sponsorships and partnership deals between companies, governments, teams, and sports. These agreements provide access, guarantee engagement, and generate exposure for all parties. It’s no wonder companies or brands that have seemingly no link to the sport vie for a deal. For example, MSC Cruises inked a multi-year agreement with Formula One, becoming the competition’s global partner, the highest level of partnership in Formula One, for the 2022 season. Similarly, almost out of left field, the Los Angeles Clippers signed dating app Bumble as a jersey sleeve sponsor in 2018. The agreement claimed to symbolise a commitment to gender equality.
To put into perspective how lucrative jersey sponsorships are, in 2014, Manchester United and Chevrolet agreed to a seven-year, $560 million contract to have Chevrolet’s emblem prominently displayed on the club’s uniform. This not only highlights the appeal of sports in business and marketing, but also the lengths companies will go to acquire the reach that only sports can provide.
The partnerships are undoubtedly beneficial for both parties, but it seems like the more random, or high-profile and high-paying these agreements become, there’s a third party that’s left out of the loop: the audience. It can even be argued greatly that the reason why there’s plenty of revenue in the sporting industry is due to the fans. From simply buying merchandise to sports betting, the fans are one of the main pillars of sport itself.
With all of this in mind, why do sporting organisations or teams agree to partnerships that their fans publicly criticise, with the broader concern of neglecting underlying human rights issues in some deals, solely because the money is too good to pass up?
IMAGE: via Pixabay | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A large crowd of Ferrari fans celebrating together.
The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird) chided Formula One ahead of the 2022 Bahrain Grand Prix for overlooking human rights violations in the country and having a “clear double standard” in deciding where races should and should not be held. While upsetting, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, as despite the cancellation of the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix due to civil unrest in the country, the sport still decided to green light the race the following year, despite widespread calls for a boycott. Furthermore, in 2022, the Bahrain Grand Prix secured a new contract to stay in Formula One until 2036, despite fans’ confusion and disappointment, as it meant that the sport might not race on more exciting and beloved tracks.
Bahrain is hardly the only nation where Formula One has neglected human rights concerns in order to have a race. In 2021, the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, hosted in Jeddah, was held despite many criticisms. Amnesty International stated that “operations, products, and services, including Formula 1 and its Grand Prix races” must not divert attention from the appalling human rights situation. Human Rights Watch also criticised the move, claiming that it was part of a cynical ploy to divert attention away from Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations.
During the 2021 calendar, the last three races were a triple header of controversy, as a couple of weeks before the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Formula One was racing in Qatar, another country where the human rights situation is also of great concern.
With context, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, as in Qatar’s case, Formula One and Qatari officials have negotiated a 10-year agreement, which will begin in 2023, with Qatar paying $55 million a year for its contract. Saudi Aramco is also a tier one sponsor of Formula One, with the sport said to be benefiting from between $42m and $51m per year over the course of the ten-year deal.
While we can argue about whether it’s a sport’s responsibility to advocate for causes, it can certainly be argued that it’s the responsibility of the sport to make sure everyone involved feels safe in their role. In March 2022, during Free Practice One in Jeddah for the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix, 2021 World Champion Max Verstappen asked his engineer whether there was something wrong with his car after smelling smoke. Though this does not appear to be an unusual occurrence, and although his car was fine, around 10 kilometres away from the circuit, Saudi Aramco’s petroleum storage facility was bombed by the Yemeni Houthis rebels.
A discussion involving team principals, FIA president Mohammed Ahmed ben Sulayem, Formula One CEO Stefano Dominicali, and the circuit promoter delayed the second practice session by 15 minutes. Later in the evening, they all met again, this time with the drivers. The meeting was said to last over four hours and lasted well into the early hours of Saturday morning, with drivers incredibly concerned for their safety. Formula One then issued a statement saying that the race would go on. Many heavily criticised this move, and not only fans, with former Formula One driver Ralf Schumacher, who, along with other members of the Sky Sports Germany team, immediately left the country after reports of the bombing.
While many executives and athletes opt to ignore the issues, others speak out. Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton said that the sport is “duty-bound” to champion human rights and that venue selection should be based on criteria other than money.
In what essentially kick-started China’s economy, on May 24, 2000, the United States House of Representatives voted to grant China permanent normal trade relations, essentially supporting Beijing’s long-delayed application to join the World Trade Organization. President Clinton’s administration pushed for this despite concerns about China’s human rights records, and said that it could help inspire their human rights platform. Because of this, China’s economy boomed, and the National Basketball Association (NBA) saw China as the perfect audience to market the sport.
The first pick of the 2002 NBA draft, who is now a legend of the sport in his own right, was Yao Ming. The then-21-year-old was selected by the Houston Rockets. Yao was the gateway for the NBA to cultivate massive engagement for the organisation that they couldn’t get anywhere else, not even in the US.
Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t the NBA that brought popularity to basketball in China. Basketball has been deeply ingrained in Chinese culture thanks to YMCA missionaries who brought it there little more than a decade after it was invented in the US in 1891. It was as if the NBA had struck a gold mine, as even though basketball was already popular in China, the country could now watch one of its people play with legends of the sport.
200 million Chinese viewers tuned in to watch Yao’s first game against the Los Angeles Lakers. In contrast to the 9.9 million US viewers of the 2003 NBA final, it was clear that the Chinese market was beyond worth the investment amidst heavy criticism—it was a holy grail.
For the 2018-2019 NBA season, almost 500 million people watched the NBA games through Tencent, China’s largest streaming platform. This was more than the US population itself.
IMAGE: via Pixabay | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: An empty football stadium in black and white, with only the sky and field in colour.
LIV Golf Tour’s second event, sponsored by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), teed off in June 2022. This wasn’t well-received, especially by families who lost loved ones during the September 11 attacks, who saw the need for the Saudi Arabian government to be held responsible for the attacks.
As recently as March 2022, the PGA Tour threatened to ban players who defected to the rival league from major events and the Ryder Cup for life. In spite of this, LIV Golf has launched an eight-event, USD225 million invitational series that debuts at Centurion Club in St. Albans. Furthermore, human rights atrocities committed by the government have been a major source of reaction because the same regime continues to be in power in Saudi Arabia.
Currently, over 50 former PGA Tour players have joined LIV Golf.
Moral of the story
While it’s easy to see sports as a way to bring everyone together, they can also very well do the opposite. These cases of organisations or individuals who either turn a blind eye or daringly proclaim that they’re doing a service by shedding light on human rights issues are almost becoming numbing.
Karl Popper said it best, “in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.” The more we as a society continue to be intolerant towards injustice, whether in our own countries, communities, or places we might never even set foot in, the more change cannot be made. Sacrifices must be made to make sure any injustice or prejudice that occurs no longer exists, and should have no room to exist. The idea that we continue to disguise tolerance for injustice under grand ideas of being beacons of peace, the more we continue to make it clear that cash is king, that we as human beings cannot say no to profit.
IMAGE: via Pixabay | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A lone man sitting in the middle of a grandstand.
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