Not team players? Why Radcliffe, Murray and co spoke out against their sponsors

Brands have it tough sometimes - pay a handsome sum of money to secure sponsorship rights to a prestigious sports team or event, only to find one of the players or staff objecting to their product or their behaviour as a company.

Sponsor critics: Jason Gillespie and Paula Radcliffe (Credits: Harry Trump/JMP/Rex_Shutterstock, Stephen Chung/LNP/REX/Shutterstock)
Sponsor critics: Jason Gillespie and Paula Radcliffe (Credits: Harry Trump/JMP/Rex_Shutterstock, Stephen Chung/LNP/REX/Shutterstock)

The same thing kicked off again last week when Jason Gillespie, the coach of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, spoke of his objections to the club's main sponsor.

PRWeek has picked out four other examples of sports people hitting out at their sponsors. In the view of the agency Synergy Sponsorship (see comment at end of story) these will all have proved "embarrassing", but also shed light on pre-existing consumer perceptions and reputational issues.

Jason Gillespie v Wensleydale Creamery

In an interview last Monday with the Yorkshire Post, which has since been picked up by various other media, the former Australian fast bowler spoke about his vegan lifestyle and his view of Yorkshire's sponsor, the dairy Wensleydale Creamery.

"Yes, they are a sponsor," he told the paper. "But it doesn’t mean I agree with what they do. It’s out of my control, just like the fact that cricket balls are made of leather. I’ll have it out with people, I don’t care. There’s nothing wrong with standing up for what you believe in." He also said that human beings "treat animals like s**t, we really do" and added: "Hopefully one day the dairy industry can be shut down."

RESULT: The dairy firm is pretty cheesed off – according to The Telegraph, Gillespie had never raised any objection about the tie-up before, with a spokeswoman for the brand saying: "That's a very bold statement and I need to understand a bit more about what he's actually trying to say there."

Andy Murray v Head

Former world number one tennis star Maria Sharapova was widely praised for how she communicated that she had failed a drugs test in March this year. While other sponsors distanced themselves, racquet and equipment supplier Head decided to stick with her, describing her as "courageous".

Fellow Head athlete, Briton Andy Murray, was unimpressed with the firm's "strange" stance. "Yeah, I personally wouldn’t have responded like that," he told a press conference. "It’s important really to get hold of the facts and let things play out, like more information coming out, before making a decision to extend the contract like that, in my view."

RESULT: Murray continues to use Head racquets – and Head stood by Maria Sharapova after her two-year ban was announced on Wednesday.

Paula Radcliffe v Nike

After years of running around very fast in Nike kit, in March 2015 marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe was upset when the apparel manufacturer gave sprinter Justin Gatlin a new deal on his return from a drugs ban.

In this case, she said it was not just at odds with her own views, but the Nike brand, saying resigning the American did not reflect "the core values of the Nike that I am proud to represent". A number of other athletes also voiced concerns, and it was a tumultuous few months for Nike, especially as questions were asked about the appropriateness of new global athletics boss Lord Coe's role as a Nike ambassador.

RESULT: No ticking off from Nike - the next month, the brand supported Radcliffe through a 'victory lap', her farewell race at the London Marathon.

Papiss Cisse v Wonga

When Newcastle United switched sponsor from Virgin Money to controversial payday loan firm Wonga, striker Papiss Cissé refused to wear the shirt, claiming that it went against his religious beliefs. Cissé's positioned was weakened by other Muslim players including Hatem Ben Arfa, Cheick Tioté and Moussa Sissoko all agreeing to wear the shirt.

The striker was initially dropped from a pre-season tour as the club declined to accommodate his request to wear an unbranded shirt or one with the charity logo. A photo of him gambling in a Newcastle casino later emerged in the press. Religious leaders warned him that both gambling and breaching a contract were frowned upon in Islam.

RESULT: The player eventually wore the shirt – having scored something of a PR own goal.

Frédéric Kanouté v 888.com

Gambling and religious beliefs is a tricky one – in 2006, Muslim striker Frédéric Kanouté refused to wear a shirt promoting online betting firm 888.com, when he played for Spanish side Sevilla.

The club initially permitted him to wear a shirt with no sponsor on it before eventually persuading him that wearing the logo didn't imply that he was endorsing gambling. In addition, he was excused personal appearances at events connected with 888.com.

RESULT: A win for both sides - 888.com was clearly not too bothered as the partnership was extended in 2008, while Kanouté remained with the club until 2012.

Comment: Tom Gladstone, director of consulting, Synergy Sponsorship

"Criticism from your own sponsored athletes can be awkward, embarrassing, and undoubtedly focuses the media spotlight, but that criticism generally reflects a view many consumers already hold. A lot of people abhor payday loans, have moral objections to betting or disapprove of drug cheats. They are normally brand reputational issues that are already being managed.

"In the case of Gillespie’s comments about Wensleydale, it should have been pretty easy for the brand to deflect that particular delivery. He wasn’t proffering a view held by much of society – most people are pretty happy to drink milk, eat cheese, or watch a sport played with a leather ball without too much soul-searching – and his comments were about the dairy industry in general, rather than the Wensleydale Creamery specifically. Arguably it has given the brand an opportunity to capitalise on increased awareness of its sponsorship and provided a ‘right of reply’ to affirm its welfare credentials."

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