It’s time to ban all forms of fossil fuel advertising in sport. Let’s start in Australia.
Australia has the highest per capita carbon footprint of any nation on earth due largely to an economic dependence on fossil fuels and the power of the fossil fuel lobby. Much of this power comes from the sponsorship of sport. Australia is also a sports mad nation, and this is what makes sportswashing so effective in the land Down Under.
The proposal to ban fossil fuel advertising in sport follows a recent decision to ban the promotion of coal, oil and gas on properties and events of the City of Sydney Council. According to deputy mayor Jess Scully: “The City of Sydney should also investigate ways to restrict fossil fuel advertising and Council should not accept sponsorships from companies whose main business is the extraction or sale of coal, oil and gas.”
If it can be done by a council, it can be done by sports.
So pervasive is fossil fuel sponsorship of Australian sport that examples are easy to find.
Santos is a natural gas company which recently signed a deal with Rugby Australia to sponsor the Wallabies, Buildcorp Wallaroos, Queensland Reds, NSW Waratahs, Western Force and Australian Women’s Sevens side. It also funded the ‘Santos Festival of Rugby’ which was held in Narrabri, NSW, this year.
This sponsorship deal is cruelly ironic and deliberate. Cruelly ironic because a majority of elite rugby union players have Pasifika heritage, and their countries of birth or ancestry are under direct threat from climate change and rising sea levels. Deliberate because Santos understands full well the power of sportswashing.
A proposal to ban fossil fuel in sport also follows The Cool Down initiative.
The Cool Down is a petition signed by more than 300 high-profile Australian sportspeople calling on the federal government to do more to tackle climate change. Launched by former Wallabies captain, and now politician, David Pocock, it is an open letter to the nation’s leaders encouraging bold action be taken as extreme weather events become more frequent and “our Australian way of life, including sport at every level” is jeopardised.
Pocock said of the Santos logo on the Wallabies jersey: “it’s hard to stomach. I really think fossil fuel sponsorship is the new cigarette sponsorship, where they are advertising a product that we now know is destroying our home planet and our futures.”
Santos extends its sportswashing through the Tour Down Under road cycling race, which opens the season for World Tour riders every year, and is an official partner of Cycling Australia.
Hancock Prospecting has an even longer history of sportswashing. For many years, Gina Rinehart’s mining and agricultural company has been the major sponsor of Swimming Australia, as well as sports such as rowing and beach volleyball. Swimming is the pride of Australia, especially during events such as the Olympic Games and Commonwealth Games, and Rinehart herself takes centre stage during the official, televised viewing party for families of swimmers during these championships.
Having successfully washed her company through sponsorship of swimming, Rinehart recently signed a lucrative deal to sponsor the Australian Olympic Committee and extended her influence to every Olympic sport and athlete until 2026.
In June 2021, Grenada Prime Minister Keith Mitchell encouraged Cricket Australia and the International Cricket Council to sign on to UN efforts to harness sport for climate action. In response, Cricket Australia said they would look into it. Cricket is as central to Australian identity as swimming. The climate crisis is an even greater threat to a sport played in the Australian summer.
Cricket Australia might be ignoring action on climate change because Alinta Energy was the major sponsor of the men’s national team during the 2021/2022 season. Alinta Energy owns one of Victoria’s largest coal-fired power plants, Loy Yang B, and its parent company, Pioneer Sail Holdings, was the sixth highest carbon emitting corporation in Australia as of 2019-2020.
Early in 2022, Australian cricket captain Pat Cummins launched Cricket for Climate which will install solar panels on club facilities around the country. Cummins also signed The Cool Down, and is proof that Aussie sportspeople are willing to use sport as a vehicle for positive change.
Cummins also highlights a conundrum. Many athletes support stronger action on climate change, but wear uniforms emblazoned with fossil fuel logos. Athletes don’t choose team sponsors. They choose individual sponsors, but are contractually obliged to support sponsors of elite teams or national associations. This is why it was disappointing to see retired swimmers Cate and Bronte Campbell appear in TV ads supporting Hancock Prospecting during the Commonwealth Games coverage in 2022. The sisters are no longer obliged to support the company, having retired, but chose to support fossil fuels just a year after signing The Cool Down.
AGL is Australia’s biggest polluter, and one of Australia’s biggest sponsors. The energy company sponsors the West Coast Eagles, St Kilda and Port Adelaide in the AFL, as well as Melbourne Victory in the A Leagues.
The Newcastle Knights have given their NRL jerseys to the NSW Minerals Council for numerous rounds, in honour of the Hunter region’s coal mining history. Banning fossil fuel sponsorship in a coal mining heartland might seem naive, impossible, provocative and even counter-productive. It’s impact will only be known once it is tried. It’s worth trying because banning the sponsorship of fossil fuel companies in a fossil fuel heartland would carry the message to the industry’s most ardent supporters, miners and sports fans, whose mindset needs to change in order to wean Australia off fossil fuels.
Rugby League is one sport which has already dropped advertising from a destructive industry. The national rugby league competition used to be called the Winfield Cup through a sponsorship deal with the tobacco corporation, until tobacco advertising was banned at all domestic sporting events in 1992, and at all international events, such as the Formula One grand prix, in 2006.
This ban was imposed by the federal government.
Some observers at the time claimed the sport would fall apart without tobacco sponsorship. It didn’t, and the current NRL competition is more financially lucrative than the previous competition. If sport can survive without tobacco sponsorship, surely it can survive without fossil fuel sponsorship. Tobacco sponsorship was banned in order to reduce the risk to public health, but what is a greater danger to pubic health, tobacco or fossil fuels?
That said, what if elite sport ceased to exist without financial support of the fossil fuel industry, or what if some teams lost the chance to win a trophy because they couldn’t afford the best players?
It’s not as if Mining sponsorship helped the Newcastle Knights in season 2022.
Plus, what’s more important; a trophy or a livable planet?
If the ban was implemented, whether imposed by the federal government or initiated by sporting organisations, there would be resistance.
“It’s UnAustralian!”, they would cry. It’s UnAustralian to touch sport, to disrupt sport, to deny Aussies the chance to watch their heroes. These opponents could be reminded of the following:
More than 80% of Australia’s mining industry is foreign owned.
Cutting ties with fossil fuel companies can be done. It has been done.
In January 2022, Tennis Australia surprisingly cancelled its multi-year sponsorship deal with their “official natural gas partner” Santos ahead of the Australian Open. The cancellation came after a long campaign targeting “sportswashing”.
This example highlights the path to a ban on fossil fuel advertising.
The federal government is unlikely to impose a ban on fossil fuel companies, as it did on tobacco sponsorship. Australia’s two major parties are owned by the fossil fuel industry. Action must be taken by sporting teams and associations, and this will only happen after ‘sustained campaigns targeting sportswashing.’
People power can end fossil fuel sponsorship of sport in Australia.