NRL opts to take it to the bank in the changing world of sports sponsorship

Athlete activism has muddied the waters of sports sponsorship, but the NRL and its latest backer didn’t have any qualms about entering into a landmark agreement.

Westpac has become the official bank for the NRL, with the firm’s logo to be freshly emblazoned on its football. While several sponsors have made large investments in the NRLW – Telstra and Harvey Norman in particular – this marks the first time a sponsor has vowed to invest equal amounts into the men’s and women’s game.

NRL CEO Andrew Abdo has been keen to finalise a banking partnership since arriving at Rugby League Central as its chief commercial officer almost seven years ago. On Friday, he was finally able to trumpet a partnership that will make Westpac the official match-ball sponsor, as well as splashing their branding across RISE Academy apparel when training sessions officially begin next week.

It has been a rough few weeks on the sports sponsorship scene. Gina Rinehart has torn up her $15 million deal with Netball Australia after Indigenous Diamonds player Donnell Wallam expressed concerns about wearing the Hancock Prospecting logo, given that Rinehart’s father, Lang Hancock, infamously suggested Aboriginals should be sterilised to “breed themselves out”.

At the same time, Australian cricket captain Pat Cummins, a committed climate action advocate, has vowed not to appear in any further promotional material for Alinta Energy. Now the Australian Cricketers Association, headed up by former NRL CEO Todd Greenberg, has called for more consultation before players agree to become billboards for businesses, particularly in the gambling, alcohol, fast food and fossil fuel industries.

While athletes are becoming more selective about where their income comes from, Abdo and Westpac Group CEO Peter King said the changing landscape didn’t deter either party from doing the deal.

Westpac CEO Peter King and NRL CEO Andrew Abdo at North Sydney Oval to launch the bank’s sponsorship deal.Credit:Oscar Colman

“We deal with that in our own organisation,” King said at the partnership launch at North Sydney Oval. “We encourage people to speak up internally, we like to hear the views of our colleagues.

“Of course, in any sports code you want people to have views. It’s really important the clubs and the NRL work with the players and those views in a constructive way.

“It’s part of modern society that you will have people express views. We encourage people to do it in the right way and do it very constructively.

“You really have to listen to people’s views and work through them. We go into this partnership knowing that, it’s something we face every day in our business. We will work through those type of views as we go forward.”

Asked if he had any qualms entering into the relationship given recent events, King said: “Everyone has a view and is expressing it. It’s part of life.”

Abdo echoed those sentiments when asked about the recent controversies.

“I don’t think I could have described it any more eloquently or accurately than Peter did,” Abdo said. “Our sport is about inclusivity and that everyone’s views are respected. That’s not to say that we won’t have our challenges from time to time, but we need to be transparent about it and we need to have a conversation about it.”

Newcastle stars Tyson Frizell and Tamika Upton, the latter a member of the Knights’ premiership-winning NRLW team, were on hand at the sponsorship announcement.

“It’s awesome for rugby league, especially for women’s sport,” Frizell said.

“To have an equal investment for men and women is great for the game. It’s great for women and grassroots and provides a pathway to come into the NRLW.”

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