Sports PRs 'surprised' by Sheffield United's decision to court controversy by bringing back Ched Evans

Three sports PR professionals have questioned Sheffield United's reported decision to re-sign a former player whose conviction for rape was overturned last year, saying it may prove an unhelpful "distraction" to the club - and a deterrent to the game's female audience.

Evans playing for Chesterfield (© Ryan Browne/BPI/REX/Shutterstock)
Evans playing for Chesterfield (© Ryan Browne/BPI/REX/Shutterstock)

Welsh striker Ched Evans spent more than two years in prison but always maintained his innocence after being jailed for rape in 2012, at which point he was playing for Sheffield United.

The club was criticised for its attitude towards Evans prior to his conviction being quashed, dismissing a campaign against his potential return to the club as "mob justice", and angering British Olympian Jessica Ennis-Hill, who had a stand at the club's stadium named after her. It no longer bear her name.

After his release he joined Chesterfield - and hired a legal team and a PR firm - he was found not guilty at a retrail a few months later, in October 2016. Throughout the process he has been criticised for lacking self-awareness.

Sports PR professionals have reacted with some surprise to the news that Sheffield United is about to bring him back to the club, just days after it won promotion to the second tier of English football.

Steve Martin, global CEO of M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment said: "I’m very surprised that Sheffield United, who have already gone through all of this, have put themselves back in the firing line - but I know they won’t have done it naively, they’ll know it would have been hugely contentious."

He said the club would now spend a lot of "energy" dealing with the controversy, a point mirrored by Andy Sutherden, global head of sports marketing and sponsorship at Hill+Knowlton Strategies. Sutherden said that employing Evans could create a "distraction to their ability to win football matches".

"Reputationally it’s an odd decision, but it’s less perplexing if you look at it from a footballing point of view," Sutherden went on to say. He also warned about that the message the affair sent to the club's sponsors, and other commercial backers of the sport.

"One thing that football must never underestimate is the importance of revenue from commercial sponsorship - if football does not show the behaviours that companies want to see reflecting on themselves through football, they will find it difficult to bring in that revenue," he said.

Wider issues

Rebecca Rhodes, co-founder of new women’s marketing agency SuperHuman, said the whole affair reflected badly on the sport, and its prominent place in society.

"Football fans tell us that football is a religion. And here lies the problem. Football isn’t just a sport and this situation isn’t as simple as acquittal and 'play on'. The gods of the field are role models and cultural icons, and with that comes responsibility. Football is the family and community game that has been rocked by violence and racism, and it badly needs its professionals to be, well, professional," she said.

Rhodes also said that women, an "important audience that the football industry professes to target", could be put off by this situation.

She said: "The re-emergence of Ched Evans can only be deemed as a setback, a situation that feels reductive and last century. Women of course will continue to watch, support and play the beautiful game, but what a missed opportunity to demonstrate to women that this isn’t just a man's game played to men's rules."

James Ford, who co-founded Barley Communincations last year after leaving Grayling, said this story still left an opportunity for charities and other campaign groups to discuss the issue of rape.

"Clearly any organisation wanting to comment on this for their own purposes should reference that Ched Evans was acquitted. That said, there is an opportunity and strong public interest for communicators to highlight the difficulties rape victims often experience in seeing rapists brought to trial, let alone convicted," he said.

"Communicators are right to focus on the importance of people reporting sexual violence to the police. Communicators and campaigners - especially during an election - have an important role to highlight the unsatisfactory low conviction rate for rapists."

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