Three months ago, Netball Australia chief executive Kelly Ryan fronted a Zoom press conference of journalists from all over Australia about reports the organisation was in financial trouble, with losses and debts of up to $11m.
Like many of the many controversies to have plagued Australian netball recently, there was a period of backlash and then the issue simply slid away. Thanks to the seemingly never-ending goodwill of its players and, in turn, the loyalty of fans towards those players, Netball Australia has managed to plough on through major missteps without facing any serious consequences.
This week marked yet another of those controversial and unexpected announcements, with the governing body on Thursday issuing a glowing press release about their new principal partner, Hancock Prospecting. No monetary figure was included, but it stated that the mining company “will invest directly in the Diamonds’ athletes and coaches, and provide funding support for training camps and competitions”, Similarly, the company logo will feature on the Diamonds’ dresses in their upcoming international matches.
It is far from Hancock Prospecting’s first foray into sport sponsorship, having supported Swimming Australia for over a decade, Rowing Australia since 2016 and this year announcing a sponsorship of the Australian Olympic teams through to 2026.
Through these endeavours the company – along with its owner, Australia’s richest woman, Gina Rinehart – has fashioned itself an image as a ‘saviour’ for struggling sports, a positive association for a controversial brand. A connection with the Diamonds – who consistently rate strongly in emotional connection with Australian sporting fans – will only improve that image.
Sponsorship is rarely something that comes from the goodness of anyone’s heart. Businesses invest money in sport because they hope to get a return – usually in the medium of a platform to advertise to thousands of captivated fans.
However, in this case there is not a consumer product being promoted. The fans flocking to cheer on the national team cannot duck down to their local shops and pick up some Hancock Prospecting goods. What Hancock Prospecting is instead buying is the right to stay relevant and warmly regarded in a society increasingly concerned with climate change, and the role of mining companies in contributing to environmental destruction. And it is buying the right for Rinehart to have public platforms to speak about her personal views on climate change and bemoan ‘propaganda’ being taught in schools.
Ryan provided the following statement to the Guardian Australia about the partnership: “Netball Australia chief executive Kelly Ryan welcomed the Diamonds’ partnership with Hancock Prospecting and its Executive Chairman Gina Rinehart, one of the most significant private investors in Australian sport.
“We are excited to partner with a company that has been committed to the growth and development of Australian sporting talent for more than three decades.
“This partnership recognises the true value of Australia’s national team and the world’s No 1 ranked netball team and it has been secured in the best interests of our sport, our players and our fans.
“We will continue to focus on growing our sport and identifying the right commercial opportunities for our game’s future.”
Former Diamonds’ captain Sharni Norder (née Layton) expressed her concerns about the new sponsorship deal on Twitter, in a damning indictment on her former employer.
“As a proud [Sports Environment Alliance] ambassador, it’s unacceptable to put our brand alongside an open climate denier,” she tweeted. “We have put too much into our sport to give social license to a company who’s profit-at-all-cost attitude puts our future in danger. Be better.”
In recent years, more athletes have picked up the baton of climate advocacy, with former Wallabies player and current senator David Pocock launching The Cool Down and Australian men’s cricket captain Pat Cummins mobilising his compatriots around the Cricket for Climate movement.
Conversely – aside from Norder – netballers have largely kept quiet on the subject of climate change. As a sport played indoors at the professional level – and one not involving nearly as much air travel as others – it is perhaps not considered as pressing an issue. Of the almost 500 athletes to have signed up to Pocock’s platform, only one is a current netballer in the West Coast Fever’s Alice Teague-Neeld.
With this new partnership, Australians will now be asking the other professional netballers to consider their position on climate change and the protection of sacred sites in this country. They will need to assess where their values lie and whether they are prepared to compromise those values or speak out and risk their place in the national team. It is a precarious position in which to be put by an employer, particularly when the athletes are the public face of the organisation, yet were presumably not involved in making this sponsorship decision.
There is no doubt Netball Australia needs assistance to survive the financial hole it finds itself in, but time and again when the organisation is faced with the decision to do what is right or what is easy, it chooses the easy path. And while it has become adept at avoiding consequences by quietly allowing issues to drop off the news cycle, when the issue is tied up in something as significant as the future of the planet, it can longer expect athletes and fans to go quietly.