On paper, it seems perfect: the world of business using its money to help develop sport. In fact, over the last few years companies have given billions of pounds to athletes, teams and sports events.
But are the aims of business and sport really the same? And when business and sport forget their social duties, aren’t they letting down each other (not to mention sports fans)?
Business and successful sportspeople would argue that their goals are alike. Business is competitive; it encourages companies to be the best. Sportsmen and women are ambitious; they want to excel. But the bottom line for businesses is making a profit. This is not the same as the athlete’s bottom line – winning a race, game or competition.
Even so, business loves sport. It wants to link company names with the excitement. And above all, it is keen to promote products with the huge number of fans. Sportspeople, of course, are delighted to receive business sponsorship. This gives them the chance to get the finest trainers and equipment – and to earn a lot of money.
These are also the reasons, however, why there are problems. Top football teams, for instance, are no longer clubs. Instead they are businesses quoted on the stock exchange. These businesses are so rich, they dominate the game. This gives them, in the view of rival fans at least, an unfair advantage.
But this is exactly what business is about – gaining an advantage over rivals. Of course, if a sports team does badly, the sponsors and the team brand suffer financially. This explains why some companies decide to play safe. Instead of buying a team, they finance events. These include the latest golf tournament or Formula One race. Someone will win the event, and the company cannot lose.
There is now a growing public relations industry for such companies. The industry consultants offer marketing advice about sport and nothing else. The purpose is to promote brand names and increase profits as effectively as possible.
All of this occurs in the context of television and the Internet. Broadcasters pay massive sums for the right to show sports events. For example, TV and Internet executives have paid more than £600 million to show the 2008 Champions League football matches.
Put simply, the focus of business is not really on the sport. It is on the fan – because the fan is a consumer. This may seem reasonable. After all, we live in a consumer-oriented society. But the desire to sell a product can sometimes ignore issues of health and morality.
Until recently, for instance, tobacco companies were major sponsors of sport. Now these are gone, there are still drinks companies and gambling organizations promoting teams and events. These businesses are legitimate; but are they the natural partners of the lifestyle that sport represents? Some might doubt this.
Athletes also have responsibilities in this area. The drug-taking antics of the T-mobile cycling team tainted their sponsor. Other businesses in turn began to think twice about their commitment to the sport. And in addition, the athletes seemed to forget that some fans regard them as role models.
Business is not about to abandon sport, however. Billions of people around the world are too passionate about it. And business has discovered that sport is one of the best ways of opening up new markets. Just watch as sponsorship booms in countries such as China and Korea where sport is developing. Western businesses have struggled to make progress in these areas for years, but not any more. The business and sport alliance is global.