Oil and gas companies are extending their presence in sport, from elite levels down to grassroots

Days after flying into Glasgow to catch the opening of the Cop26 climate summit, Santos CEO Kevin Gallagher headed over to Edinburgh to watch the Wallabies play Scotland from a corporate box.

The oil and gas company’s logo may have stood pride of place at the Australian pavilion at the summit, but it was the company’s sponsorship of the Wallabies that would prove a public relations coup.

The deal with Rugby Australia will see the team sport the Santos logo on the top-back of their jersey at every game.

Former Wallabies captain David Pocock, a strong voice within sport calling for meaningful action on climate says “it’s hard to stomach”.

“I was always proud to represent my country. As a rugby player, that’s what you dream of. It’s been difficult to watch a partnership emerge with Santos.”

“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.”

As oil and gas companies have spent billions to control the conversation on climate change and present themselves as “part of the solution”. The $50bn world of professional sport has proven catnip to an industry under pressure over its role in driving climate change.

Campaigns director for climate activist group 350 Australia, Kelly Albion, has been tracking fossil fuel companies as they work up sponsorship deals, advertising arrangements and official partnerships with the arts, community groups and sports clubs.

“There’s some that are really hyperlocal in places while others are national,” Albion said. “It’s very opaque so it’s hard to know how many of these are out there or what the relationship means.”

A count of these arrangements for which there is publicly available information reveals at least 12 fossil fuel companies, industry associations and energy retailers have 24 deals with sports clubs, stadiums or events at all levels.

As the list includes only those arrangements for which there is publicly available information, Albion says there may be others that are unknown.

‘You don’t know how much is at stake’

Among the most prolific is South Australian oil and gas company Santos whose patronage extends to several sports organisations.

Even before it expanded its “long-term partnership” with Rugby Australia to include the Wallabies, Santos already sponsored the Wallaroos, Queensland Reds, New South Wales Waratahs, Western Force and the Australian Women’s Sevens.

Outside Rugby, Santos is the naming rights sponsor of the Tour Down Under while it was announced in February that the company would sponsor the 2021 Australian Open as “official gas partner” – although the company’s logo is not currently listed on Tennis Australia’s website.

The move was controversial as the 2014 Australian Open – where play was stopped and 1,000 spectators were treated for heat exhaustion when temperatures rose above 40c – is considered an example of how climate change impacts sport.

But Santos sponsorship isn’t limited to the elite level. Earlier this year the company sponsored both the Festival of Rugby in Narrabri – headlined by rock band Thirsty Merc – where teams competed for $25k in prize money, and the Aboriginal Power Cup, a football competition run in partnership with Port Adelaide football club for Indigenous high school students in South Australia.

Guardian Australia asked Tennis Australia and Santos for comment.

Santos is by no means the only fossil fuel company getting in on the action. Among the more high profile examples are coal mining giant Adani’s sponsorship of the North Queensland Cowboys and the NSW Minerals Council’s partnership with the Newcastle Knights.

Meanwhile in Western Australia, gas giant Woodside Petroleum funds a learning-to-swim program with Surf Life Saving Western Australia, the “Woodside Nippers”.

A spokesperson for Surf Life Saving WA did not answer questions about how much the relationship with Woodside was worth in dollar terms, but said it funded a range of beach-safety programs and “provides every child with a new uniform”.

“In 2019, the partnership extended to include the Nippers program in WA, helping us resource the program and our clubs, increasing opportunities to train children and their parents in beach and surf safety,” they said.

Director of climate and environment at the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, Dan Gocher, says the reluctance of clubs and companies to talk about the issue makes it difficult to assess the scale of the funding.

“The problem is you can never put a value on these relationships. You don’t know how much is at stake,” Gocher says.

Fossil fuel companies value these partnerships as a way to “buy social licence”.

“In Australia, the way you wash your brand is through sport. Tobacco did it for a generation, through Formula One and AFL. Fossil fuel companies are essentially doing the same,” he says.

‘Sport is special’

At the height of its dominance the tobacco industry turned the use of sport sponsorships for influence into a fine art.

In one case, a copy of a speaking notes found in the archive of tobacco company RJ Reynolds reveals how by May 1980 it was sponsoring over 2,400 sports events a year.

“That translates into 2,400 opportunities to put a politician in front of anywhere from 3000 to 200,000 potential voters,” it reads. “An opportunity provided by Reynolds that’s too good to be true for the politician.”

The notes show the ambition of these relationships by crediting the company’s sponsorship of Nascar racing for “killing tax increases in both Florida and Alabama”.

Attempts to leverage the “soft power” of sport have not just been limited to tobacco companies.

Human rights organisations like Amnesty International have repeatedly warned about how Saudi Arabia has bought up football clubs across the world as a way to water-down criticism over human rights abuses.

Elsewhere Russian state-owned oil giant Gazprom has spent billions sponsoring football clubs across Europe as it has expanded its gas infrastructure, even going so far as to sponsor the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Marketing lecturer at the University of Melbourne Robin Canniford says in Australia sport is an obvious target for fossil fuel companies looking to protect their reputation as awareness of their role in the climate crisis grows.

“In Australia sport is culture,” says Canniford. “Sport is special because of its emotional energy that you don’t get from many other areas of society any more. Brands as symbols store, like a battery, emotional energy that sports fans love.”

Canniford says associating with sport in this way creates a “halo effect” for the company that allows it to “channel all that passion and energy” generated by sport.

‘Get to the future’

While sport can be leveraged to further business interests, the UN attempted in 2018 to use sport to marshal support for meaningful action on the climate change when it launched the Sports for Climate Action framework at Cop24 in Katowice, Poland.

Former Socceroos captain Craig Foster says he welcomes Richmond’s work on climate change in other areas, but says “it has been very disappointing” to see the wider world of sport mute on the issue of climate change..

Most of the advocacy is coming from athletes or former athletes in small groups but the governing bodies that represent literally hundreds of millions of people, playing the most visible sports on the planet, have done next to nothing during the most important week when the planet is facing an existential crisis,” Foster says.

“I’ve said to these [sport] executives many times, get out of the past, get to the future,” he says. “Sports should recognise that dying industries like fossil fuels do not represent the future of income.”

“Clean energy. Renewables. This is the new generation of sports sponsorships.”

Extracted in full from: Fossil fuel advertising in sport ‘the new cigarette sponsorship’, ex-Wallabies captain David Pocock says | Oil and gas companies | The Guardian