Responsible sponsorship – where is the line?

Where do you draw a line in terms of who do you ask for sponsorship or who do you accept the sponsorship investment from? Do you draw the line at all? Is there such a thing as responsible sponsorship when you are on the side of a rights holder – can a relationship with a certain sponsor hinder you more than you benefit from it?

There have been quite a few negative comments around INEOS, a global petrochemical company and one of the biggest contributors to the environmental pollution in the world, sponsoring sports like running (INEOS Sub 2 Hours Marathon Challenge), cycling (Team INEOS) and sailing (INEOS Team UK) to name a few. Environmentalists say that the company is greenwashing or sportswashing – cleansing their brand’s image via an emotive association with the clean and green sport – and that such sponsorship is not appropriate or irresponsible.

Similarly, the recent announcement of McDonald’s sponsoring Emirates Team New Zealand has raised some eyebrows amongst America’s Cup and ETNZ fans. They oppose the fact that a company that heavily contributes to kids’ and adults’ obesity should sponsor such a prominent sports entity as Emirates Team New Zealand. So is partnering with McDonald’s irresponsible from ETNZ?


McDonald’s sponsoring an America’s Cup team is not its first involvement with the sport at the highest level. “The company has sponsored the games in some form since 1976 and became an International Olympic Committee (IOC) worldwide partner (the highest level of sponsorship) in 1998.”. In 2012, they extended the contract for another 8 years, all the way to this year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo. However, the partnership has prematurely come to an end in mid 2017.

What happened? I don’t think it has ever been publicly confirmed who instigated the break-up, IOC or McDonald’s. Ever since London Olympics in 2012, IOC has been criticised by “public health campaigners for allowing sponsors such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s to use the Games as an opportunity to market their products, which are perceived to be unhealthy, in contrast to what the event seeks to promote”. The official explanation after the end of the sponsorship was, however, that McDonald’s decided to focus on improving its food quality and their restaurant and online service in order to stay competitive in the US market. And that might as well be the only reason for stepping out of the multi-million dollar sponsorship deal.

Whatever the reason, what did the end of the sponsorship mean for IOC as the rights holder? Did it make any difference for them now that they were not partnering with McDonald’s (from the responsibility point of view that is)? Does it ultimately matter where the sponsorship money comes from?


I am a fan of sailing and America’s Cup. I am also very conscious about the environment and am always looking for ways to minimise my negative impact on it. I also believe in benefits of clean and healthy eating and avoid fast food restaurants as much as possible. So when I hear about sponsorships and partnerships such as INEOS and McDonald’s, I tilt my head and raise my eyebrows.

But, quite honestly, I am also happy about them (which is very hypocritical of me). I understand the need of a rights holder to secure the necessary money for its project. As a fan, I am excited about possibilities such partnerships can give to a sport and/or a team I support, and I am super stoked for America’s Cup teams to have access to the money they need in order to provide us with great sailing races. That doesn’t mean that I approve of what INEOS as the company does, nor will I choose to dine at McDonald’s next time I feel hungry, but these partnerships don’t really bother me.

For how long though? “Increasingly, as the world and the sports industry continue to move into a more responsible, progressive era, these deals will be held under ever greater scrutiny, by brands and rights holders alike.”


There is no black or white answer what responsible sponsorship is or isn’t. It is easy to be critical when you are not directly involved with an individual sponsorship, or when it doesn’t affect your sport or your team. I do however believe that rights holders should be more and more careful and put a greater deal of thinking in it, before they enter a relationship that has a potential for scrutiny.

How does a certain relationship align with my values? How will I promote the sponsor? What will my story be? How will I go about negative press if there happens to be one? Will I be able to defend my position and promote my values? How about my fans? How will they feel about such partnerships? Will they care? Will they feel betrayed? These are just some questions rights holders should probably be able to answer.

Sponsorship is much more complex than just a simple exchange of a right to be associated with for a pile of money. Therefore I think rights holders need to carefully consider potential sponsorship from all different aspects, so they don’t end up hindering you, and they support your values and the impact you want to have on environment and/or community.

Is there such a thing as responsible sponsorship?

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