The cycle of sponsorship

Egan Bernal stands atop the yellow podium as the 2019 Tour de France winner while the sun sets over Paris.

The red, blue and yellow colours of the Colombian flag drape the Champs Elysees into a kaleidoscope of South American fanfare, cheer and admiration for the country’s first ever Tour de France winner.

At just 22-years-old, Bernal is a national hero riding for the most expensive, exceptionally decorated team in the current male professional peloton: Team INEOS.

The team is sponsored by a fracking company owned by a pro-Brexit male who happens to be the richest man in the United Kingdom.

Emblazoned in the centre of the Tour’s iconic Malliot Jaune (Yellow Jersey) which Bernal wears proudly is one word larger than the rest: INEOS.

In an era where climate change is at the forefront of political agendas across the globe and ideas of sustainability and accountability remain heightened, it makes for uncomfortable viewing.

Now is a more appropriate time than ever for cycling to reflect on the choice of sponsors it allows to finance its teams, races and athletes and for management to be held accountable for these choices.

Flashback 12 months almost to the day. The scene is Paris, late afternoon, moments after the conclusion of the  final stage of the 2018 Tour de France. Winner Geraint Thomas of Team Sky is giving his victory speech with a Welsh flag over his shoulders while wearing the winning Malliot Jaune.

Across his chest bears three words: SKY OCEAN RESCUE.

The team utilised the exposure brought about by the Tour de France to announce their support of the organisation which raises awareness of issues with single-use plastics.

They pledged to remove single-use plastics from its entire business operation by the end of 2020, claiming they wished to “inspire people in the cycling community and beyond to make simple, everyday changes to stop our oceans drowning in plastic.”

Sky announced in early 2019 it was pulling its sponsorship of the team.

The team now needed a sponsor in order to survive. They were no longer Team Sky.

This team, previously pushing to pass on single-use plastics, is now Team INEOS. Does that taste off to you? You’d be forgiven if it does and you wouldn’t be alone.

The team faced mass protests at their first race post-name change – the Tour de Yorkshire – with protesters wearing masks depicting the company’s owner Jim Ratcliffe as the devil while waving placards with slogans including ‘frack off INEOS’ and ‘on your bike, INEOS.’

Road cycling needs sponsorship to survive.

It’s not a ticketed sport where revenue trickles in from sales made at the box office. People can pick a spot anywhere along a 100km+ race route, set themselves up with a folding chair and newspaper and wait for the peloton to roll in for the day.

At the end of the day this is exactly what makes cycling arguably the most engaging sport in the world, one where fans can be centimetres from their heroes, watching every single stage of a race roadside without paying a single cent.

Yet it does come at a cost. It means the funding that allows races, teams and athletes to continue existing must come from other elsewhere and sponsorship is one such primary means.

Finding sponsors can be difficult for teams due to the instability associated with the sport and salary and budget inflation that has become common.

Multiple high-profile doping scandals plague the sport, causing potential new sponsors to be cautious about associating their name and/or product with an individual or team.

Many people would remember the US Postal Service branding for its association with a particularly well-known American athlete who “won” seven editions of the Tour de France.

Sometimes, with the sponsorship offerings being few and far between and athletes and employees needing reliable income, the only viable option is to take on the first sponsor that comes close to meeting the requirements of the team.

This is where an ethical dilemma enters the equation: do you keep your team in business and make a deal with a sponsor that could be perceived by the public as shifty, or do you fold?

INEOS is by no means the only team in the peloton to be subjected to this criticism, yet they appears to have attracted exceptional attention to their sponsorship deal in comparison to other teams in similar circumstances.  

It has been suggested in recent weeks that the sponsorship of another team by the Kingdom of Bahrain is a political tool to ‘sportswash’ the public perception of the country.

The Sports and Rights Alliance wrote to the International Cycling Union (UCI) this month regarding the sponsorship of the team, stating “the Bahraini government has a reputation for using high-profile sporting events to divert international attention from the country’s appalling human rights record, and we are concerned that Bahrain-Merida’s participation in UCI competitions is consistent with these aims.”

Representatives of the team deny any link with the country’s human rights record. It is interesting to note however, that the team’s leader is listed as Sheikh Nasser, the son of the King of Bahrain.

It’s also well worth noting the uproar INEOS attracted has been missing in any backlash, albeit dismal, against the Bahrain-Merida-sponsored male cycling team.

Australian team Mitchelton-Scott was previously sponsored for six years by explosives and mining company Orica.

Similar sponsorship partnerships exist outside the world of cycling.

The Australian swimming team and major Australian swimming competition events are sponsored by mining company Hancock Prospecting, owned by Australia’s richest woman, Gina Rinehart.

In Formula 1 car racing, Ferrari is sponsored by Mission Winnow, an initiative launched by team title sponsor Philip Morris. Ferrari temporarily removed the branding from cars in March after it emerged Australian authorities had launched an investigation into whether the sponsor had contravened laws banning tobacco advertising in sport.

The branding is now back on competition vehicles as the sponsorship continues.

In today’s social climate, there is an expectation of transparency from those in the public eye. People are (rightfully) concerned with the sponsors of athletes and celebrities that many idolise.

Sponsoring a sporting team is a fantastic way for members of the public to draw positive conclusions about a brand, tied to the athletes’ success.

However, this may no longer be a viable mindset for brands assuming sponsorship roles as spectators demand to know who is backing major sporting events.

Fracking companies and suspected human rights violators are not who you’d associate with the Tour de France, nor should it be. It’s all about the Yellow Jersey and energetic roadside crowds.

And yet, in the last week, both have risen to the top step of the podium at the biggest race of the year, their names called emphatically as a rider ­ with their branding sprawled across his chest – crossed the line in victory.

Cycling might be cleaning up its act around doping, but it’s high time sponsorship also underwent an examination.

Image by Morgan Todonai