Given the role of sport in society and the values we look to it for, public sentiment is shifting, expressing concern about the types of advertisers, products and services that are advertised within stadia, aired during sports broadcasts or associated with players, teams and sports events.

In India, there has not been an active public debate around the appropriateness of surrogate advertising through brand extensions. Elsewhere, tough questions are being asked about sports sponsorships. In the UK, even though it is legal to offer sports bets and advertise licensed betting services, a debate raged for many years on whether gambling advertising should be allowed in the Premier League given how widely football is followed by the youth. In Australia, despite it being legal to advertise alcohol products and gambling, SGBs are being pushed to revise their policies on advertising by alcohol brands and gambling companies during sports events.

The argument against such advertising is that early exposure to content promoting gambling and alcohol can normalise these activities and influence children, especially when they are at an age when their values, attitudes, behaviours and world views are still being formed. Similar questions are being asked about the appropriateness of athletes, teams and SGBs accepting sponsorships from makers of junk food and beverages that are high in salt or sugar, and from industries such as mining, petrochemicals and non-renewable energy. In the public consciousness, these are seen as having a negative impact on public health and environmental well-being.

In some cases, the sport itself has assessed the direction of the wind and decided to drop advertising for products deemed harmful. For instance, Formula 1 does not permit the advertising of tobacco products in any manner. Responding to public pressure, the Premier League and its twenty clubs announced in 2023 that they would no longer accept gambling sponsorship on their match day shirts following the end of the 2025-26 season.

All money entering sports through sponsorships theoretically helps promote sport. Can sport remain agnostic to the sources of its funding or does the business, history and conduct of the advertiser or sponsor matter? Should people or companies that have a record of behaviour running counter to the underlying values of sport, or products and services that have negative effects on physical or mental health or the environment, be permitted to receive the “positive glow” of associating with the passion, goodwill, emotions and prestige that sport evokes?

The act of laundering or whitewashing reputations or brands through association with sports is now known by the umbrella term “sportswashing”. Through sponsorship associations and advertising, a brand’s reputation can be enhanced or normalised; sport can be used to divert attention from a sponsor’s past and current activities through the power of association.

Arguably, these gains for the brand can only come at the cost of sport’s reputation and goodwill. By allowing advertising that directly conflicts with its ethos, the values of sport risk being compromised and diluted. This has brought public morals some would say, those that reflect Western standards into SGBs’ boardroom discussions.

The Beijing 2008 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games focused the world’s attention on the Chinese state’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province. Questions were also raised around Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers in the lead-up to its hosting of the FIFA World Cup 2022. The Premier League has encountered public concern around the ownership and stewardship of multiple teams often termed British cultural assets by Saudi Arabian and other Gulf investors. In 2023, the Professional Golfers’ Association of America (PGA) faced strong criticism for partnering with promoters of former rival LIV Golf, after having spent a year painting them in poor light for Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and its role in the 9/11 attacks.

In the past, sport’s only focus was on how revenues could be maximised to benefit its own ecosystem. But now, it can no longer ignore larger societal concerns about the sources of its funding. The battle is imminent. Through its associations, organized sport affords a stamp of approval and a form of implicit social license to industries and organisations. It is going to face increasing public and governmental scrutiny and tougher questions about the associations it chooses and the connections it makes.

As key sponsors and other intermediaries like broadcasters play more prominent roles in the professional sports ecosystem, they start exerting significant influence on matters of sports governance. These organizations have a ear to the ground about consumer and public sentiment. Brand perception and consumer response are vital currency for them, and this means they will generally act in ways that are respectful to and aligned with public views to ensure the sustainability of their businesses.

Sponsors and broadcasters remain wary of associating their brand with activities and conduct that are widely seen as immoral or inappropriate. Corruption in sports organizations, athletes found to be doping or cheating and tournaments that are rife with match-fixing can all set off alarm bells with sponsors who are concerned that they might be “cancelled” by their consumers for supporting or associating with such activity.

In the aftermath of the 2013 IPL spot-fixing scandal, the title sponsor PepsiCo exited its sponsorship of the league. BT Sport, a UK-based broadcaster, ran a live 30-second piece on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan in its pre-match coverage of the 2019 UEFA Champions League final in Baku. In 2020, on the sidelines of the Sky Sports broadcast of the England v. West Indies Test series, former cricketer and commentator Michael Holding delivered a stirring address on the Black Lives Matter movement and the institutional racism black athletes face

Sponsors will usually err on the side of caution and avoid controversy while making decisions to engage with events, SGBs, players and teams. When they do engage, they normally include “morals clauses” that enable early termination of the relationship should there occur acts that result in disrepute or loss of goodwill. This puts the public sentiment albeit expressed vicariously through intermediaries squarely in the mix on the issue of ethics and accountability in sports governance.

An SGB that wants to attract and retain sponsors and broadcasters will also need to retain alignment with public mores. The pulls and pushes of commerce bring balance to decisions. This deters conduct and decisions that might not sit well with the public. Here, we see the fan begin to make the transition from being a grateful recipient of entertainment to taking a position of indirect influence

Whether or not the SGBs themselves care about fans, they certainly do care about those who care about them sponsors and broadcasters. They are now positioned to amplify the public sentiment. You might ignore the fan, at your own peril, but you simply cannot ignore your commercial partners.

Excerpted with permission from Boundary Lab: Inside the Global Experiment Called Sport, Nandan Kamath, Penguin India.