The perils of sponsoring sports personalities and teams was thrown into sharp focus again recently with the Luis Suarez affair. Brands such as Adidas and 888 Poker suddenly found themselves in the centre of a media storm and under pressure to review their associations with the Uruguayan striker.
Sport and sponsorship have always had a relationship that works well through the good times but when things get a little sticky, it’s always had for the sponsor to justify their position. And some sports have been historically stickier than others.
Which brings me neatly to the most watched annual sporting event in the world which starts this weekend. The Tour De France starts its three-week, 3,500-km journey in Yorkshire amongst a huge publicity push. If you’ve ever watched any pro-cycling, you’ll know that it cannot actually work without sponsorship. The teams are named after the sponsors such as Sky, Garmin, Belkin, Movistar and Europcar. And they are just the headline sponsors. Team Sky for instance are a moving hoarding for the Murdoch Empire with 21st Century Fox, News International also adorning the team shirt along with car brand Jaguar.
These are big brands with big names and big budgets and (new international aside) reputations to maintain. Which is why cycling is an interesting choice. With its high-profile doping cases culminating in the Lance Armstrong scandal, the sport has always fought hard to prove to the outside world that it is a credible sport and that sponsors should get involved.
In 1998, a team car was found to be carrying a vast amount of banned drugs and stimulants. The case became known as the Festina Affair after the lead sponsor of the team involved. It’s still widely referenced as such and must be a huge embarrassment to the watchmakers. Puzzlingly, Festina remain involved as the official timekeeper of the Tour when you think that they would have run away as far as possible from cycling.
This all goes to show how the recent ‘Right to be forgotten ruling’ is largely impotent when taken in this context. And even more pointless when looking at how cycling is treated on social media, and it’s something I feel Twitter need to get to grips with. Do a Twitter search on most top cyclists and you’ll find direct accusations of doping and other illegal activity. The accusations targeted at Teams Sky’s Chris Froome and Tinkoff-Saxo’s Alberto Contador are quite staggering in the sheer number and ferocity from those that believe that Twitter offers some kind of shield against this. The landmark McAlpine V Bercow case of 2013 proved that this is not the case but even then the onus was on the defendant to bring the action.
I’ve called before for Twitter to take a more proactive view on protecting individuals on their platform and go beyond the ‘report abuse’ button. It must be possible to highlight potential problem areas and take a closer look at the search results. It must be possible to protect the right of individuals and the rights of sponsors not to be associated with baseless accusations. Twitter needs to find the balance between freedom of speech and protection from abuse pretty quickly.