26 Oct 2022

The money or the morals - sport's sponsorship dilemma

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 26 October 2022

Should athletes - especially those in financially struggling sports - have a say on which companies are splashed over the uniforms they wear? 

Diamonds line up for the national anthems ahead of the opening Constellation Cup test against the Silver Ferns.

The Diamonds line up for the national anthems ahead of the opening Constellation Cup. Photo: Aaron Gillions / www.photosport.nz

It could be one of the biggest own goals in the history of sports sponsorships.

The decision of cash-strapped Netball Australia to accept sponsorship from mining magnate Gina Reinhart prompted a team revolt; accusations of player entitlement; and has left the organisation itself in a financial mess.

It's a stark case of what happens when morals meet money - and it's an issue that won't be resolving itself any time soon. 

Over the weekend - and overshadowing the Diamonds' comeback win over the Silver Ferns to reclaim the Constellation Cup - Reinhart pulled her $15 million deal spread over four years, after the team refused to wear dresses with Hancock Prospecting written on them. 

Hancock Prospecting emerged as a sponsor earlier this year as Netball Australia turned down a private equity offer to buy the Suncorp League, which is running at a loss and surviving on Federal Government grants. 

Sky Sport netball commentator Jenny Woods believes Netball Australia was not comfortable with losing control of the best domestic competition in the world. 

"Then out came Gina Reinhart ... sponsorship offer .. $15 million over four years that was going to be used to fund the Diamonds' high performance programme - invaluable. Women's sport, and particularly netball, does not get offers like that every day of the week, so you can see why Netball Australia was so keen on it."

Then things get murky. 

Initially it was suggested the players were against the mining (environmental) aspect of the deal, but it's since emerged it's not so much that but a case of the sins of the father being visited on the daughter. 

"Lang Hancock, Gina Reinhart's father who started Hancock Prospecting last century, had a horrendous record towards the indigenous people," says Woods.

That included mining where he wanted, regardless of whether it was indigenous land, and suggesting putting chemicals in the water of "half-castes" to make them "sterile and breed themselves out".

Gina Reinhart has never made a public statement on those words - but she has made real amends in working with indigenous people and funding various projects. 

On the other hand, Netball Australia has in the past been rocked by accusations of racism. 

The third indigenous player ever to be named for the Diamonds - and she's due to take to the court this week in a test against England - is Donnell Wallam. She asked to be exempt from wearing Hancock signage in the style of Sonny Bill Williams, who taped over the name of a bank on his Auckland rugby jersey for religious reasons. 

But Wallam's sisters in arms backed her up. The players all refused to wear it.

"So solidarity - sisters in arms, all that sort of thing - and this is where it's all gone rather pear shaped," says Woods. 

She tells Emile Donovan on The Detail that much of the resulting mess comes down to a poor relationship between Netball Australia and the players' association, who don't seem to communicate well with each other.

Woods also talks about why the sport is in such bad shape in Australia - it won't be a spoiler to say it could be traced back to latent Australian sexism - and how Gina Reinhart is seen as a sponsorship angel for women's sport there.  

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