How the power of sponsors might save sport

Paul Hyland 6 February 2016

It seems like every sport these days is plagued by some form of scandal. First football, then athletics, then tennis, these days almost none of our national pastimes seem safe from allegations of corruption.

Take the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), currently engulfed in controversy after revelations of state-sponsored doping by Russian athletes has seen the country banned from competing in the sport for a year. In the aftermath, three senior officials were banned for life, following the findings of an ethics commission that they had covered up evidence of positive drug tests from Russian athletes.

UK Athletics has unveiled its new ‘Manifesto for Clean Athletics’ and IAAF president, Sebastian Coe, has come under public scrutiny as to his role in the cover-up. But it’s not the public, the government or UK Athletics that have put the IAAF under the most pressure. It’s Adidas.

The German sportswear company announced last week that it is set to terminate its £5.6 million a year sponsorship deal with the organisation four years before expiry in late 2019. The decision is understood to have been a direct result of the ongoing investigations into doping in athletics. An investigation that has now cost them £21 million in lost income over the next four years.

It’s hard to know whether this is a good thing. The problem with pressure exerted by massive companies like Adidas is that moral standards in sport are being set by organisations whose concerns are financial, rather than ethical. It’s surely a problem that the greatest pressure on the IAAF has come from an international sportswear conglomerate who, in withdrawing millions of pounds of sponsorship from that under-fire organisation, have little interest in a transparent investigation into alleged acts of doping in the sport, but only want to protect their assets from guilt by association.

This situation is all the result of the commercialisation of sport. Football’s governing body, FIFA, can hardly complain that tournaments held in Russia and Qatar, from which they can comfortably expect to better their almost £2 billion profit margin from Brazil 2014, have caused companies such as Emirates Airlines and Sony to decide not to renew sponsorship deals worth hundreds of millions of pounds.

Such is the bind that governing bodies including FIFA, the IAAF and the International Tennis Federation find themselves in. Much of what these organisations do is to sell their sports to the highest bidder, and now they’re dying by the swords they live by.

If anything is going to persuade them to become more transparent, and embrace higher standards of ethics, it will be the fear of losing out on millions of pounds from marketing their sports to the public. Though the morality of doping, match fixing and even human rights abuses is probably not too high on the agenda of most multinational corporations, their power to enact change could be the start of a new era of transparency and ethical values in sport.