Sponsors – remember we “don’t like cricket, oh no, we love it”

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By Andrew Woodward, former global head of brand and sponsorship communications for Visa Inc. who has worked on Olympic Games, FIFA World Cup, Rugby World Cup, Commonwealth Games, NFL, MLS, MLB and A-League in roles with sports governing bodies and sponsors.

As published in Mumbrella.

I have moved beyond shock. I am disgusted with what’s happened. Wearing a baggy green onto a field means something. This Test should be finished now. Steve Smith can never captain Australia again. David Warner can no longer hold a leadership position in this team again. I feel like they have spat in my face by doing this. I am disgusted. They need to be brought home in disgrace”. That’s “Mark in Greenvale”, out near Melbourne Airport, calling into Gerard Whateley on SEN Radio on Sunday morning, expressing the views of the majority of Australian cricket fans following events earlier in the morning in Cape Town.

Cricket Australia has a ‘to die for’ list of sponsors. Following the events in Cape Town, I would suggest some of these sponsors are now on life support when it comes to maintaining their relationship with cricket and Cricket Australia. Here’s the roll call: QANTAS, JLT, CBA, XXXX Gold, Accenture, Toyota, Asics, Milo, Bet365, Hardy’s, Magellan, Optus, KFC, BUPA, Weet-Bix, Spec-Savers and Gatorade. It is as good as it gets.

In looking at this from a sponsorship perspective, six key material aspects count. First, the “guilty” parties are Steve Smith, the captain, Cameron Bancroft, the man with the tape in his box, and this mysterious “leadership group”. So, there are the players. Then there’s the confession of guilt from Smith and Bancroft at their extraordinary media conference 45 minutes after the close of play. The third aspect is the team as a whole and the legend of the ‘Baggy Green’ and the traditions of cricket. The fourth aspect is the actions of Cricket Australia CEO, James Sutherland, and the fifth material matter is the reaction from the public – based on what we’ve all seen on our facebook feeds and seen and heard on broadcast media.

I am no psychic, but I reckon on Sunday, CEO’s were calling CMO’s asking, “What do we do? I am going to role play one of those CMO. First, if I were a sponsor of Steve Smith, Cameron Bancroft or other members of the leadership group, I would have terminated my commercial agreement with them by about midday Sunday. Every contract has a parachute.  Ripcords should be immediately pulled. Why so harsh so quickly? Within 45 minutes of the close of play, they admitted guilt – guilt to cheating. That’s not only guilt to cheating in a match – that’s guilt to cheating the ‘Baggy Green’; that’s guilt to cheating the traditions of cricket; that’s guilt to bringing the name of Australia into disrepute. That’s as our friend Mark of Greenvale told Gerard, like spitting in our face. There’s nowhere for Smith, Bancroft and the other guilty parties to go. No one will touch them again. Companies don’t associate with cheats. The tens of millions of dollars Smith could have expected from sponsorship, endorsements, public speaking and commentary have gone in an afternoon of madness in Cape Town. So, if I were New Balance, a personal sponsor of Smith, I would be asking for a refund. What of Smith? He will be fine. He will make $20 million plus in the years ahead in the Indian Premier League when integrity is a lower order issue.

The next roleplay is that of a CMO of a sponsor of Cricket Australia. When you are a sponsor and the ‘property’ comes into disrepute, you always look at how the property owner, in this case, Cricket Australia, reacts. That’s the key. James Sutherland fronted the media at midday Sunday in Melbourne looking like a bloke who just had been told by his wife that she was leaving him. He was stoic, disciplined and scripted, which is exactly what the moment called for and he did it well. He made all of the right noises: I am “disappointed and shocked”; this is an “extremely serious issue”; this is “a very sad day for Australian cricket”; we are acting with the “utmost seriousness and urgency”; we will “take appropriate action” as “we have a responsibility and will take this further”.

Perfect. So, with those statements, Sutherland mirrored what the cricketing public thought and bought himself time to talk to sponsors, calm them down, gave himself some breathing space and allowed everyone involved the chance to express themselves and be heard over the next few days – the public, the game, the players, the media – everyone – and ‘let due process take its course’. That’s exactly what you need to do – buy time. Some have criticised the fact he hasn’t jumped on QF whatever to Johannesburg to investigate matters himself (he’s sending lieutenants). Others have said he should have swung the axe Sunday as Smith and Co. have admitted to guilt. I think Sutherland is right to stay in Australia to deal with media, sponsors and, inevitably, opportunistic politicians and let process occur so when that’s done there are no arguments.

And if you are wondering why Sutherland looked so down; there was the Cape Town matter but the day before the Sydney Morning Herald reported: “Cricket Australia has told television networks to resubmit their bids for the rights to broadcast the sport and said it would be prepared to sell more matches to pay television after no first round offers were regarded as acceptable.” So, on Saturday he looked like the bloke who had his wallet stolen. On Sunday his wife walked out. And he’s likely to get his wallet back but half of the money went missing on Sunday.

From a CMO perspective, I am happy with the response from the rights owner. I too would sit tight and see how the right’s owner responds. Overnight, Smith and Warner stood down from their leadership positions and, just to rub salt into gaping wounds, Australia suffered a humiliating loss on the field. Further, Smith was banned for one match and Bancroft escaped sanction. The International Cricket Council, the sport’s governing body, has dealt with this issue before and its sanctions don’t reflect public anger about the ‘crime’. This issue has gone to the core of Australian cricket and everything that is wrong and right with it. If Cricket Australia stands by Smith and Co., then they’re totally tone deaf and that’s not something I as a sponsor want to be a part of. But no sponsor should pull out or say anything until Cricket Australia has handed down its report, findings and sanction. Then a sponsor should decide on whether to stay or go. If Cricket Australia is tone deaf, I am off to AFL, A-League or NBL. There’s no shortage of ‘wholesome’ alternatives in Australia.

If the above happens and then, as it will, cricket goes into its off-season and with no northern hemisphere Ashes Series, cricket won’t be on the agenda until October or November as a winter of ‘footy’ will now dominate. That gives the game and the sponsors time to re-set. Everyone will be much calmer, there’ll be a whole lot of new fresh faces in the Australian team and it will rebuild and that will become the story and something you as a sponsor will want to be associated with.

There are so many dimensions to what happened in Cape Town and even more ramifications. But any clever sponsor will sit tight, lay low, expect high standards and then find a way to leverage the sport for their brand. That’s assuming Cricket Australia and the individuals’ concerned act in the best interests of the game. Did golf flourish after Tiger Woods? Yes. Did cycling flourish after Lance Armstrong? Yes. Did cricket in South Africa survive the late Hansie Cronje match fixing? Yes. Did AFL survive the Essendon drugs matter? Did the Sharks win the NRL Grand Final after the drugs scandal? Yes. Will Cricket Australia survive after Steve Smith? Yes. Will Steve Smith survive? No. He’s commercially radio-active.

Australians have been hurt. Cricket has been hurt. The two go hand in hand. Fans are sick and tired of the theatrics of cricket and people who put itself above the game. But they “don’t like cricket, oh no, they love it”. Sponsors should remember that. Sponsors should lay low, make their views known to the property owner and come up with a new strategy for marketing their association with season 2018/19 which starts in just six months. They’d be mad not to.


Published: 26 March 2018, 0900 Sydney time.