When Australia’s richest woman, Gina Rinehart, threw a financial lifeline at Netball Australia, she sparked a debate about sponsorships and the role of social and political issues in the sporting sphere. Then she walked away.
Rinehart’s explosive decision to withdraw a 14 million Australian dollar ($8.9 million) sponsorship deal for the Diamonds, Australia’s national netball team, caught players off guard and dealt a blow to the future of Netball Australia – a sports body mired in debt.
The drama engulfing the Diamonds isn’t new, but experts say disputes could become more common as athletes and fans take a firmer stance on the source of sponsors’ money.
High-profile fans of the AFL’s Fremantle Dockers last week urged management to sever ties with longtime sponsor fossil fuel company Woodside over its carbon emissions.
Meanwhile, Australian Test cricket captain Pat Cummins is said to have raised issues with Cricket Australia’s deal with Alinta Energy, for the same reasons.
For Diamonds members, the objections centered on racist remarks made nearly 40 years ago by Rinehart’s father, Lang Hancock, the founder of his company Hancock Prospecting.
Rinehart is a prolific supporter of Australian sports teams and generally deserves praise for her sponsorship deals. Last year, Olympic swimmer Cate Campbell reportedly said Rinehart had “saved swimming”.
But Kevin Argus, senior lecturer in marketing at RMIT University, said Rinehart’s decision on Saturday to withdraw funding from Netball Australia was a “lost opportunity” to “embrace the national vibe”.
“In Australia, we have seen many large, powerful corporations benefit enormously from positive associations with sport and withdraw their financial support as soon as a problem arises with athletes,” he told CNN Sport.
“Diamonds athletes have raised concerns about being seen as supporting a legacy of Indigenous discrimination. Some expressed concerns about the environment.
“These are major issues today that won’t go away,” he said.
At the center of the controversy is wife Noongar Donnell Wallam, a rising star who is set to make her debut this week as the third Indigenous netball player to represent Australia.
Wallam reportedly expressed reservations about wearing the Hancock logo due to Rinehart’s father’s comments about Australia’s First Nations people.
During a television interview in 1984, Hancock said he would “dope the water so they would be sterile and breed”.
Her lyrics are a grim reminder of racist attitudes towards Indigenous people, and while Rinehart promotes her longstanding support for Indigenous communities through mining royalties and charities, she has never publicly condemned her statements. dad.
Wallam’s teammates rallied around her, and when the team ran onto the pitch to face New Zealand in the Constellation Cup last week, they were wearing their old uniforms, minus the Hancock logo.
In Saturday’s statement, Rinehart and Hancock Prospecting said the Diamonds were not required to wear the logo during the New Zealand games and had not declined to wear it.
The statement said Hancock’s majority-owned mining company Roy Hill would also withdraw its support for Netball WA, a public netball body, as the two companies “do not wish to add to Netball’s disunity issues”.
Netball Australia and Netball WA would be offered four months of funding while they find new partners, the statement added.
Separately, Rinehart and Hancock appeared to take aim at the players, saying they considered it “unnecessary for sports organizations to be used as a vehicle for social or political causes”.
“There are more targeted and authentic ways to advance social or political causes without virtue signaling or for self-publicity,” the statement added.
On Monday, Kathryn Harby-Williams, CEO of the Australian Netball Players Association, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that Wallam had requested an exemption from wearing the logo and had been refused.
“Ultimately, unfortunately, Donnell found the pressure too much and decided she would wear the logo.”
But it was too late.
Netball Australia has made no secret of its financial difficulties. Although it is Australia’s most popular team sport with 1.2 million players, it lost 4.4 million Australian dollars ($2.8 million) last year.
Netball Australia CEO Kelly Ryan told Nine News the loss of Hancock’s sponsorship was “disappointing” but that a “strong balance” must be struck between social issues and funding.
“There’s a really important role that sports organizations, grassroots all the way up, play in creating a safe environment to have really strong social conversations,” Ryan said.
“But there also has to be a balance in terms of business realities.”
In a report, the players said they were “disappointed” with Hancock’s decision to withdraw their sponsorship and thanked the other sponsors for their continued support.
The statement added: “Reports of a protest on behalf of the players, for environmental reasons, and a split within the player group are incorrect. The only issue players were concerned about was support for our only native team member.
Vickie Saunders, founder of The Brand Builders, said Wallam’s objection to wearing the Hancock logo was deeply personal, not a matter of a player using his public profile to promote a political cause.
“Its 60,000-year-old culture will tell you it’s important. His 200 years of survival and his fellow natives will tell you that’s important,” Saunders said.
“She has a very personal reason for not wanting to wear a logo that depicts someone who said her people should be sterilized or raised,” she said. “It’s not a new problem for her. It’s his life.
Hancock Prospecting was founded in 1955 and retains interests in iron ore, coal and mineral exploration, as well as beef and dairy.
The company also funds services for remote and rural Indigenous communities, including health and education programs, and Rinehart is a familiar face in elite sports circles.
The billionaire sponsors Swimming WA, Swimming Queensland, Volleyball Australia, Rowing Australia and Artistic Swimming Australia, and recently struck a deal to sponsor Australia’s Olympic team until 2026.
This week, in response to the debate surrounding the Diamonds, many of those sports bodies released statements praising Rinehart’s dedication to the sport.
“Ms. Rinehart’s selfless commitment to women’s sport deserves the praise of our great sporting nation,” said Craig Carracter, Chairman of Volleyball Australia. Swimming Queensland CEO Kevin Hasemann said he found it “regrettable the negative characterization in some quarters of Ms Rinehart’s new sponsorship of another sport”.
The Australian newspaper also weighed in with an editorial saying there was no room for ‘cancel culture’ – ‘sacrificing Ms Rinehart over comments made decades ago by her father, Lang Hancock , is a bridge too far”.
Netball Australia’s sponsorship deal would have been worth 3.5 million Australian dollars ($2.2 million) a year for four years – an almost negligible amount for a company that posted a profit of $7.3 billion Australian dollars ($4.6 billion) in 2021 thanks to soaring iron ore prices.
Kim Toffoletti, associate professor of sociology at Deakin University in Melbourne, said for less established sports it can be difficult to say no to any sponsorship offer.
“Their livelihoods are at stake…it’s very hard to turn down that kind of money because it keeps your sport viable,” Toffoletti told CNN Sport.
“I don’t see it as a failure of sport, but perhaps as a system in which certain sports are economically and culturally rewarded over others, which means that many are absent.”
Today’s rising sports stars are members of Generation Z, born in the late 1990s to around 2010, whose attitudes may differ from those of leaders of established sports organizations and major brands.
Experts say sponsors cannot expect young athletes to align with their values.
“Some of these sports have very old-fashioned business models, which were probably built around 30 to 40 years ago in a different era,” Australian National University marketing expert Andrew Hughes told CNN Sport. .
“But now we care a lot about what the brands stand for, what they stand for. I think we see that reflected in the way the athletes themselves think.
Saunders of The Brand Builders said athletes realize that protecting their personal brand is more important than aligning with their sponsors’ values.
“Your brand is actually your most valuable asset because after the game, or after your career, it’s what you can take with you into employment or other opportunities in life,” she said. declared.
And that’s especially important for players who don’t make a lot of money – like netballers – who need to find another source of income at the end of their sports career, Saunders added.
RMIT University’s Kevin Argus said Rinehart’s response to the debate – canceling the contract – demonstrates “reactive decision-making” that is counterproductive for a company seeking to win public support.
He said a better option would have been to engage with the players, like a mentor would in a workplace, to better understand their values and how they can work together to benefit both parties.
“Leaving sponsorships when athletes behave like normal functioning human beings demonstrates responsive decision-making and highlights the need for bolder, transformative leadership,” he said.
“When done well, sports sponsorship transforms the brand for both the sport and the sponsor.”