Fossil fuel companies have no place in sport

Fossil fuel companies have hijacked sport — we must end their sponsorship once and for all.
Michael Hardy

The future of sport is threatened as the climate crisis supercharges extreme weather events. From soaring temperatures, raging wildfires and devastating floods, sport is already experiencing major disruption with fixtures being cancelled, tournaments rearranged and athletes hospitalised. 

There are innumerable examples of these impacts including: last summer’s National Games in Mexico was hit by a scorching heat wave which led to the suspension of matches and the hospitalisation of athletes; March’s World Triathlon Championship Series opener cancelled due to 'severe' weather warnings in Abu Dhabi; and 2021’s deadly floods in Germany caused €100m worth of damage to grassroots sports infrastructure. 

And it’s not just elite sport that experiences severe impacts – it is estimated that 62,500 amateur football matches were postponed or delayed by weather conditions such as rainfall, snow, ice or extreme heat that made matches impossible. 

Sport is already experiencing major disruption due to climate breakdown. Image: Flickr.

Despite these impacts, the sports teams and tournaments we love to watch and support insist on being used as giant billboards for the companies driving the extreme weather events, impacting people and planet, and putting the future of sport in jeopardy. 

Whether that’s fossil fuel giant Saudi Aramco striking a new deal with FIFA; Wimbledon announcing its partnership with Emirates Airlines; or Team GB partnering with British Gas whose parent company Centrica is a fossil fuel company. 

However, the tide is turning. Campaigns are succeeding in targeting the relationship between these harmful industries and the sports we love: last year the RFU turned down a lucrative sponsorship agreement with oil and gas corporation ExxonMobil over fears of a backlash from the public; Bayern Munich agreed not to renew their sponsorship deal with Qatar airways after fan protests and gas giant Santos was dropped as an official partner of the Australian Open.

A long way to go

However, there’s a long way to go before sport is free from harmful sponsorship. It is still saturated at all levels with fossil fuels – not just in terms of sponsorship, but ownership too. 

Take Newcastle United, which is majority-owned by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia. The chairman of Newcastle United, Yasir al-Rumayyan, is also the chairman of Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company, as well as governor of the PIF.

“If sport washing is going to increase my GDP by way of 1%, then I will continue doing sport washing”. - Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed Bin Salman 

Speaking at a conference last month in Texas, president and chief executive of Aramco, Amin Nasser, declared, “We should abandon the fantasy of phasing out oil and gas, and instead invest in them adequately”. 

Additionally, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman, has stated “If sport washing is going to increase my GDP by way of 1%, then I will continue doing sport washing”.

The conversations between sponsorship and ownership are also inseparable. Newcastle United are also sponsored by Saudia – Saudi Arabia’s state-owned airline. 

Sheikh Mansour (right). His club Manchester City is sponsored by the UAE's flagship airline Etihad Airways. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Newcastle are not alone. Manchester City is owned by the Abu Dhabi United Group, an investment company for the Abu Dhabi royal family, which is owned by Sheikh Mansour. The club is also sponsored by Etihad Airways - one of the UAE’s flagship airlines. 

It is almost impossible to enjoy any sport at any level without being forced to also consume adverts from harmful industries. Whether it’s fossil fuel giants, online gambling platforms, or alcohol firms, sport is awash with advertisements that look increasingly egregious given what we know about the social impacts of climate change, alcoholism and gambling addiction. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The tobacco industry once used sport as a playground to promote its harmful products all over the world, sponsoring some of the biggest global sporting events. The American tobacco company RJ Reynolds even negotiated a deal to advertise at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, despite the host nation already having a ban on tobacco advertising in place at the time. Now tobacco sponsorship in sport is almost nonexistent whilst sport has continued to thrive.

The tobacco industry once used sport as a playground to promote its harmful products. Image: Unsplash.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many sporting bodies took action after the likes of Russian companies such as Gazprom and Aeroflot lost their social licence, leading to UEFA and Manchester United dropping sponsorship deals with those two companies.

What we can do about it

When fans, athletes and sports teams and organisations come together change really can start to happen. That’s what the GameChanger Sponsorship Pledge aims to achieve. 

The pledge calls on fans and athletes to leverage the issue of harmful sponsorship with their clubs to create an environment in which clubs and organisations can no longer ignore the issues associated with harmful sponsorship and take serious action. We must acknowledge the harm sponsorship by these industries causes and commit to end or avoid renewing deals with companies from within these industries. 

Sport has unrivalled reach and has the power to change hearts and minds. It must seize this opportunity, harness the power it has and take a leading role in consigning sponsorship from harmful industries to the history books.

But to make this a success we need you, your sports team and organisations on board. 

Pledge your support to GameChanger here and help end high-carbon, gambling and alcohol sponsorship in sport.

Michael Hardy is a Fossil Free Football Campaigner at Platform London and a director of the Game Changer Sponsorship Pledge.

Feature image: Wikimedia Commons.

Michael Hardy

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