Are fossil fuel sponsorships the new cigarettes? Dismayed former Wallabies player David Pocock made the claim after Santos inked a deal with Rugby Australia in 2019.
The gas giant’s logo remains on the top-back of the playing jersey after the pair confirmed a further three-year deal last year, but sporting counterpart Tennis Australia has quietly done the opposite.
The partnership between Santos and Tennis Australia was announced in February last year to some fanfare; it was to be a “multi-year deal” that saw the Santos branding splashed all over last year’s Australian Open.
At the time, Tennis Australia described Santos as “a leading supplier of natural gas, a clean, affordable fuel” who was “committed to being part of the solution to a lower-carbon future”.
What will the election mean to you?
Sign up to our free newsletter, including this weekend’s coverage of the election.
Less than a year later, the peak tennis organisation has cut ties with Santos — neither are saying why — but climate activist group 350 Australia celebrated anyway.
The partnership had seen Santos “driving climate damage” while being allowed to “‘sportswash’ their image at major events”, 350 Australia’s CEO Lucy Manne says.
Gas has been described as a transitional fuel since the 1990s but climate experts have long pointed out it’s dirtier than it seems, and we’ve run out of time to use it anyway.
Besides, Manne points out, it’s personal for Tennis Australia.
“The sustainability of the Australian Open depends on a sustainable climate,” she continues.
This week, Melbourne spectators at the Open will sweat through a heatwave, the Bureau of Meteorology says, and organisers will be keeping a close eye on crowds after 1000 people were treated for heat exhaustion back in 2014.
Climate considerations for big business have never been bigger, according to the 2022 Deloitte CxO Sustainability Report, which gained insights from 2000 business leaders across 21 countries (102 were in Australia).
The report found almost three-quarters of Australian executives said their companies are very concerned about climate change, and around the same number told the report they thought the world was at a tipping point for responding to climate change.
That’s up from about 52% just eight months earlier, the report noted.
Interestingly, the timing of the terminated partnership lines up with Santos announcing the acquisition of a PNG big oil company Oil Search, points out brand counsel Michel Hogan.
That’s either extremely fortuitous or well-played, she says.
“People’s outrage would surely have escalated once that deal became public because, while gas may be marginal, big oil is fast becoming kryptonite for any organisation that wants to steer clear of controversy,” Hogan continues.
Tennis Australia is also a signatory on the UN Sports For Climate Action framework, which asked all parties to submit plans that show the action each is taking on the climate crisis.
“A partnership with Santos, especially post-merger, would have undermined their climate pledge,” Hogan says.
Besides, at the end of the day, a badly-behaving partner or sponsor is bad for business.
“Every promise is a risk to the integrity of their values, so alignment [with a partner] becomes ever-more critical,” she says.
“That’s hard when values are genuine, but impossible when they are lip service.”
And even when values run deep for a business, Hogan says, “the extra scrutiny, turbo-charged activism and narrow lens of social media make it almost impossible to avoid occasional explosions of outrage”.
Hogan says any prospective sponsorship or partnership in the corporate world really comes down to a few hard questions.
“Is the money worth the backlash and damage to reputation? ‘What are we giving’ instead of ‘what are we getting’?” Hogan suggests.
“And,” she adds, “They will need to become black belts at unironically asking, ‘what could possibly go wrong?'”
Tennis Australia and Santos were approached for comment.