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From oil and gas to betting and crypto… ranking the riskiest sports sponsorship categories

In the wake of the backlash to British Cycling's Shell partnership, SportsPro takes a sector-by-sector look at the risk level for rights holders in partnering with brands from certain industries.

28 October 2022 Sam Carp

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It would be fair to say that some people weren’t best pleased when British Cycling announced a new partnership with oil and gas giant Shell.

As far as backlashes go, it couldn’t have been any worse. British Cycling might have thought it was plugging a crucial revenue gap vacated by HSBC but, as this detailed piece explains, has only succeeded in alienating employees and members, as well as doing damage to its brand.

The subsequent fallout got me thinking: are there any ‘safe’ sponsorship categories left?

So, I thought it might be a useful exercise to go through some of the most prevalent sectors investing in sports sponsorship today, with the help of some recent examples, to get a better idea of what partnerships now look like through the eye of the fan.

…oil and gas

As the experience of British Cycling would suggest, you’re probably better off steering clear if you want to avoid accusations of greenwashing and being complicit in the climate crisis. Cricket’s ICC has found that out following its recent deal with Aramco.

You’re not only risking the wrath of a younger, eco-conscious generation of fans, but also potentially your own athletes, who themselves might be more focused on sustainability. Just look at the case of Cricket Australia, Pat Cummins and Alinta Energy.

Risk level: High


Undoubtedly part of the furniture, whether it be through main shirt sponsorships or stadium naming rights deals, airlines are also not immune to criticism over global warming.

With that being said, it’s easy to fall foul of hypocrisy in this instance. After all, how else would the global sports media industry have got to Sportel Monaco this week? And are fans really going to get angry about a mode of transport they regularly use to go on holiday?

Risk level: Medium


Another classic of the genre and unlikely to cause much of a stir now that most car manufacturers are starting to shift towards electric vehicles.

Risk level: Low

…state-backed entities

Not strictly a category, but increasingly influential in sports sponsorship. More media coverage of ‘sportswashing’ means fans are now acutely aware of how their clubs (and opposition teams) are being used to promote brands operated by states whose values are difficult to reconcile with their own.

Bayern Munich’s sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways has proved unpopular with the club’s supporters

It’s why we’ve seen Bayern fans vehemently protest their club’s deal with Qatar Airways, criticism of Arsenal’s Visit Rwanda sleeve sponsorship, and growing scrutiny over every partnership the likes of Manchester City and Newcastle United sign.

Risk level: High


The general slowdown in cryptocurrency deals after last year’s initial surge probably tells you all you need to know, and the collapse of several high-profile partnerships in 2022 has done little to inspire confidence in the sector.

Crypto brands may yet have a place in sport but it is difficult to see that happening until greater regulation is brought in to help separate the credible actors from the rest.

Risk level: High


It seems to depend on where you are. Not good in Europe, where betting sponsors have been banned in some countries and calls continue for similar measures to be introduced in others. But seemingly fine in the US, where sports betting appears to be among the fastest-growing categories.

While small wagers can add to the overall experience for some fans, sports properties partnered with betting firms are unlikely to shed accusations that they’re promoting a product that could end with their supporters losing lots of money.

Risk level: High


Hello, now we’re talking. A sponsor that’s paying a rights fee, contributing to the fan experience, AND making internal operations more efficient? Where do I find one of those?

Microsoft’s deal with the NBA is a good and pertinent example after the pair recently launched the league’s revamped app. We’ve also recently seen the likes of Amazon, Apple, Oracle and SAP signing deals, and others like Google linked with big ones.

You can probably bundle in the swathes of connected fitness and recovery technology businesses, such as Whoop, Strava, and Hyperice, that have also upped their sports marketing efforts in recent years.

Risk level: Low


Meeting for a beer is part of the experience for a lot of match-going fans, which is why brands like Guinness sponsor rugby’s Six Nations and AB InBev is ubiquitous across American sport.

But because of the associated health risks, alcohol is another of those categories that will always face calls for a ban.

Risk level: Medium

…financial services

Perhaps not the sexiest sector but that’s probably a good thing. The only problem is that some of the major players like Mastercard and Visa are very selective about who they partner with, primarily sponsoring major events such as the Olympics and the Fifa World Cup.

Risk level: Low

…snacks and soft drinks

You can probably guess where this one is going.

The likes of Coca-Cola now use some of their sports partnerships to promote sugar-free products, but that still doesn’t hold off the critics. For example, the company’s recent deals with a slew of top European soccer clubs prompted some health professionals to call on ties between sports teams and junk food to be ‘severed for good’.

Fans are probably less fussed. Coca-Cola’s most recent financial results suggest as much. That said, they might be more concerned by how many brands from this sector make up the ‘dirty dozen’ companies contributing to 70 per cent of branded packaging pollution across the UK.

Risk level: Medium

I could sit here for hours going through other prominent categories like insurance, telecommunications, and consumer electronics, but this provides a snapshot of the tightrope sports properties are now walking in a changing world of sponsorship.

I’ll admit I’m usually first to criticise sports which sign deals to promote brands from certain sectors and have done so before in this newsletter. Look hard enough – which consumers in this hypercritical digital age will – and you’ll probably be able to poke a hole in any commercial partnership.

But in doing so it’s often forgotten that many of these sporting organisations rely on sponsorship to, you know, function as businesses. The question many will regularly be asking themselves is where to draw the line.

On that note, this new data-based diagnostic tool, developed by 5T Sports Group, enables rights holders and corporate partners to identify areas of genuine values alignment and assess credible opportunities for purpose-led activations.

It’s well worth a look for anyone in sport taking ESG-based due diligence seriously.

Still top of one table

Throwing strops, leaving games early and cast out to train on his own, but you’re all still talking about him, aren’t you?!

In case you haven’t guessed who I’m referring to, Cristiano Ronaldo was last week named SportsPro’s Most Marketable Athlete of 2022, illustrating the enduring appeal of a star who appears to be struggling to accept that his best days might be behind him.

You can find the full ranking here, learn more about the methodology here, and read a more detailed breakdown of this year’s list here.

Things catching my eye

This week saw Gillette run the first-ever mixed reality ad during an NFL broadcast – it was both mildly terrifying and probably unlike anything else you’ve ever seen before.

Top dealers

Major League Baseball (MLB) and its 30 teams made US$1.19 billion in sponsorship revenue during the 2022 season, a 5.6 per cent increase compared to last year. Expect that figure to rise again in 2023 when teams are allowed to have a jersey patch sponsor for the first time.

Want this feature delivered directly to your inbox every other Thursday? Sign up to the SportsPro sponsorship and marketing newsletter here.

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