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Oil on the pitch

Oil on the pitch

Saudi Arabian oil giant Aramco’s sponsorship of world cricket is the latest example of a petrostate exerting influence over sport. But resistance is growing from the athletes carrying their message.

Long stories short

  • LS Lowry’s classic painting ‘Going to the Match’ was bought for £7.8 million by the Lowry arts centre in Salford 23 years after the Professional Footballers’ Association acquired it for £1.9 million.
  • Jasmine Harrison became the first woman to swim the 900 miles – equivalent to 58,000 pool lengths – from Land’s End to John o’Groats.
  • Cristiano Ronaldo was dropped from the Manchester United squad to face Chelsea after he walked down the tunnel in a sulk in the 89th minute of United’s win over Spurs.

Oil on the pitch

The brief statement announcing Aramco’s sponsorship of world cricket referenced the Saudi oil giant’s mission to deliver “affordable” and “sustainable” energy. “Affordable” sounded a bit rich, days after Saudi Arabia and Opec conspired with Russia to cut oil production and force up prices.

Doublespeak is common in the energy sector. Now sport has embraced it too. When Saudi’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) bought Newcastle United it promised the country’s ruling clan would not run the club. Last Sunday, Newcastle again ran out in a green and white outfit remarkably like the kit of Saudi Arabia’s national team.

Aramco reported record profits for the second quarter of 2022 of $48.4 billion. Its deal with the International Cricket Council (ICC) includes the men’s and women’s T20 World Cups, next year’s one-day World Cup in India, the World Test Championship final in Britain and player-of-the-match awards.

If PIF doesn’t get you, Aramco probably will. Saudi Arabia’s colossal pincer has encompassed Newcastle United, the rebel LIV golf tour, cricket’s Indian Premier League, boxing and F1. Saudi Arabia will be joint-bidders for the 2030 men’s football World Cup. And it covets the Olympics.

Sport tumbles over itself for these riches, as western governments and economies have. But a countervailing force is growing. Athlete pushback for a range of ethical reasons is on the rise.

  • Elnaz Rekabi is an Iranian climber who competed in an international tournament without a hijab. On Tuesday she apologised on Instagram “for all the concerns I have caused” and called her ditching of the hijab “unintentionally problematic.” The next day she emerged to a hero’s homecoming at Tehran airport but was wearing a hoodie and baseball cap.
  • Australia’s Test captain Pat Cummins says he will not promote Alinta Energy in the final year of its deal with the country’s governing body. Many of Australia’s household names are members of the “Cricket for Climate” campaign. 
  • England, Wales and four tournament sponsors are among those urging Fifa and Qatar to pay £390 million in compensation to families of workers killed during World Cup construction.
  • Australia’s netball team have objected to wearing the logo of the mining company Hancock after a tie-up was agreed apparently without consultation.

Issue-based protest has a long history, from the Black Power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico to the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the US anthem – a gesture repeated across world sport.

New fronts are forming, on climate change, religious coercion and human rights. Sometimes protest advances no further than armbands or slogans. Yet each is an incremental step towards sportsmen and women refusing to shut up and play. Mighty forces confront them.

  • Saudi’s PIF says it will spend more than $2.3 billion on long-term football sponsorship deals this year. The timing suggests regional jostling with Qatar, next month’s World Cup hosts.
  • Qatar’s beIN Sports channel, banned in Saudi Arabia from 2017 to 2021, has become a target for PIF investment, according to Bloomberg. A tie-up would give the Saudis an easy route into beIN’s deals with the Premier League, Bundesliga and Champions League.

As Kieran Pender, a human rights lawyer, wrote in Guardian Australia this week: “Sport can be a potent tool for positive social change. It can also be hijacked by companies and brutal authoritarian regimes who want to use its emotional power to enhance their reputations. The resistance to sportswashing in Australia in recent weeks has been encouraging.”

As athletes consult their consciences, or just merrily collect Aramco player-of-the-match awards, Saudi money finds it easier to buy chunks of sport than control tastes. LIV Golf still has no major broadcast deal and drew only 314,000 YouTube views for the final round of a recent tournament in Jeddah. A non-LIV golfer, Joel Dahmen, echoed an earlier Sport Sensemaker when he tweeted: “If a player wins a golf tournament in a forest and no one sees it, does it count?”

Dahmen’s tweet wasn’t the most heroic protest in sporting history, but was another small sign that defiance is spreading.

Editor’s note: Paul Hayward’s book, England Football, The Biography, tracing the 150-year history of the team, will be published by Simon & Schuster on October 27.


Four’s plenty

The Jockey Club, the oldest but most commercially savvy of racing bodies, resisted the urge to add a fifth day to National Hunt’s Cheltenham Festival. It wasn’t Britain’s biggest U-turn this week. But it was a welcome reverse for expansionism.

Financially the Jockey Club, Cheltenham’s owners, will miss out on extra ticket and booze sales. Sometimes though more is less. A fifth day would have diluted race quality, pummelled the turf and strained the stamina of punters. Fixture glut is a curse of sport’s calendar. But after a six-month consultation wisdom prevailed. There are still four days and 28 races in which to find a winner: temptation enough.


Foul ball

Major League Baseball’s postseason is underway, with the National and American League series (effectively semi-finals for the World Series) starting this week. The playoff format, expanded this year to 12 teams, is lucrative – with sold-out stadiums, endless merchandising opportunities and increased broadcast revenues – but is it fair? Each MLB team in each league plays 162 games over the summer before the East, Central and West division winners are joined by three wildcards in four rounds of playoffs.

These are so attractive to broadcasters that they wanted 14-teams to qualify. The games are often exciting and dramatic, being the best-of-three, then five, then two rounds of best-of-seven but they do not reward consistent excellence. This year, the best team by far over the six-month regular season was the Los Angeles Dodgers, who won 111 games. But the Dodgers fell at the second playoff hurdle and their league championship series is being contested by the San Diego Padres, divisional rivals who finished 22 games behind them, and the Philadelphia Phillies, who won only 87 times in the regular season. One of these two will play the Houston Astros or the New York Yankees in the World Series, for the sport’s ultimate prize. If the Phillies win it all (it’s 1-1 after the opening games), baseball’s champions this year will be a team that finished third in their division of five, sixth (by wins) in their league and eleventh out of 30 overall.


Tip off

The NBA season started this week – with an opener between the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers – and the return of ever more sophisticated SportsVU camera systems to track the location of the players, the officials and the ball. The system captures the state of the game 25 times per second, with every game adding 1,000,000 new data points to its database.

SportsVU has been active in the league since 2010, and with 1230 total games played in the five-month season, that’s more than 14 billion game-specific data points that teams use for analysis to understand why players get hurt, where’s best on the floor to take shots, or which players don’t get up and down the court fast enough. The NBA is adopting new technology at scale, with improving player health and longevity being a major focus. Ahead of this season it hosted its inaugural Technology Launchpad, an event that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said would help to address the fact that “there’s nothing more frustrating, obviously, than injuries and … having series decided by players not being on the floor.”


Rugby’s reckoning

£175,000-a-week. The figure of how much Wasps rugby club were losing for seven years, before they were put into administration this week. The Premiership started the season with 12 teams, now it has ten following the collapse of Worcester Warriors three weeks ago. Redundancies across the two clubs will number more than 500.

But the problems run deeper than just the two clubs. The Premiership rugby clubs total debt in 2021 was £473.7 million, according to a Parliamentary report released earlier this month. This is a moment of reckoning for the sport, with the RFU and Gallagher Premiership facing a parliamentary committee next month to address the sport’s crisis.

Highs and lows

↑ High…
EA Sports announced the Women’s Champion League will now be included in Fifa 23. This takes the number of playable women’s leagues up to four, with the international teams, Women’s Super League and Division 1 Féminine all active. Concurrently, EA Sports has joined UEFA as an official partner and created the “Starting XI” fund, a £9.7 million investment in women’s football. The twinned style of the American video game giant’s investment – symbolised best in Chelsea Women’s striker Sam Kerr’s inclusion on the game’s cover – gives new dimensions to an age-old question. The importance of eyeballs isn’t up for dispute, but does the guarantee of raised visibility eclipse the benefits of direct investment?

↓ and low
England’s Footballer of the Year award from journalists enshrines “precept and example” as a voting criterion. Fifa’s Ballon d’Or – less so. Karim Benzema was named world footballer of the year for a season (2021-22) in which he was handed a one-year suspended sentence for conspiring to blackmail his France team-mate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape. His 44 goals in 46 games for Real Madrid played a bigger role in the poll.

and finally…

As concurrent men’s, women’s and wheelchair Rugby League World Cups swing into action, spare a thought for the sacrifices made by the players. After he retired, the former Great Britain captain Jamie Peacock said:

“If you boil rugby league down, you’ve got to be a bit of a lunatic to play it properly. We aren’t like 99 per cent of normal people in society, because of what we have to put ourselves through, and where you’ve got to go mentally to play the game properly – how little respect you’ve got to have for your own physical wellbeing to be very, very good.”

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Paul Hayward

Additional reporting by Andrew Butler, Keith Blackmore, Luke Gbedemah and Sara Weissel.