FIFA’s choice of Qatar to host the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup has been controversial since day one. Questions continue to arise about the country’s attitude to human rights and its treatment of migrant workers.
To some, the entire event exemplifies the concept of “sportwashing” — using sport as a means of soft power, to clear (and distract from) a shady political or humanitarian reputation. And as a PR exercise, the Men’s World Cup is a huge deal. The latter, hosted by another controversial host country, Russia, attracted 3.5 billion viewers around the world.
The use of sport as a means to improve perceptions is not a new phenomenon. Brand management through sport has long been high on the agenda of many of the world’s best-known companies.
This is partly because sports can evoke such powerful emotions in fans. Supporters often form strong bonds with teams and individual athletes – and those bonds can be used to great effect by companies (as major sponsors) and countries (as event organizers) to improve their public image and popularity.
And of course, it’s not just football that is prone to sportswashing accusations. Major boxing events in Saudi Arabia and the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics have recently been criticized. Meanwhile, British Cycling was accused of “greenwashing” – similar to sportswashing but with a particular focus on the environment – after it announced a new sponsorship deal with Shell.
But while critics balk at the tactic of using sporting events to change public perceptions, what do fans themselves think? Do allegations of sportswashing and greenwashing really matter to them?
Our recent research, which looked at sports fans and the relationship they have with a team, suggests that allegations of involvement in sports laundering (or any other questionable team behavior) don’t really matter.
This is because fans who have a strong bond with a team (and with their fellow fans) usually choose not to criticize the team they support. It’s a way to protect the strong sense of identification that comes from being a loyal member of a fanbase.
This finding suggests that sports clubs should not, in fact, feel particularly motivated to act in a socially or environmentally responsible manner – as their actions may very well be admitted or ignored.
In another study that focused on the perception of fans and sports team brands, we found no direct relationship between corporate social responsibility and brand equity (the value of the club brand) from the point of view of the fans.
This means that being considered a socially responsible organization does not automatically lead to a higher value for the organization’s brand. It also gives sports organizations little motivation to change their practices and improve their approach to social issues.
These (rather alarming) findings suggest that while attempts to polish a nation’s or organization’s image through sport may be on the rise (and increasingly being called out), they may be of little interest to many fans.
Those people, who regularly pay for tickets and buy merchandise, are one of the most important stakeholders in the sports financial ecosystem. But our research suggests that some of them don’t particularly value social responsibility. And even when they do, it seems many are willing to turn a blind eye to their club’s behavior, prioritizing their own loyalty to the team and other fans.
As a result, sports clubs seem to have little (if any) motivation to improve their behavior as a company. Even though they receive criticism from campaigners and on social media, their fan base is likely to remain loyal.
Argyro Elisavet Manoli, Associate Professor (Senior Lecturer) of Sports Marketing and Communications, Loughborough University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Read also | COP27: one major breakthrough but ultimately an inadequate response to the climate crisis