Sponsorships – Wider Effect

The sponsorship row currently engulfing the West Indies cricket team is one which will affect cricket in almost every country within the next two years. The signs have been evident in Australian cricket circles for two years now and it’s only been the remarkable good will by players concerned which has prevented the issue from reaching the crisis point now occurring in the WI.

Disputes between team/event sponsors and personal sponsors is nothing new. Prior to the 2003 World Cup, it was feared several Indian players would be unavailable for the tournament due to the conflict between exclusive tournament sponsor Pepsi and Indian player sponsors. Eventually a deal was reached which stated that Indian players would be restricted in the use of their sponsors but that official tournament sponsors would also be restricted in their use of Indian players in advertisements. In Australia, Adam Gilchrist caused some controversy over his personal sponsor Valvoline and its use on his bat whilst out in the middle. Eventually it was decided that Adam Gilchrist had the right to be sponsored by anyone he chooses to earn money in any way he sees fit but Cricket Australia also insisted that it’s use be restricted to the back of his bat and that no other sponsors be added. Since then, Matthew Hayden and a few other Australian players have added their personal sponsors to the spines of their bats. The rationale generally seems to be that because there’s no over-arching sponsor of Australian cricket which conflicts with the personal sponsors, no conflict will arise.

However, the current issues with the personal sponsors of WI cricketers might suggest that it’s a matter of time before similar disputes occur in other countries. Several of the WI’s top players have personal sponsorship deals with Cable and Wireless (a former sponsor of the team) and this has caused problems with the new team sponsor, Digicel, a telecommunications rival. Brian Lara, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, Dwayne Smith, Fidel Edwards and Ravi Rampaul all have sponsorship deals with C&W and in the last few days, the president of the WI cricket board, Teddy Griffith, has announced that these players will not be considered for future selection until such time as it is determined that their individual contracts are truly individual and display no connection between the WI team as an entity or the players as they relate to the WI team. If this wasn’t the case, Digicel could conceivably sue the WI cricket board for a breach of their ‘exclusive’ contractual rights to the WI team and players as a team entity.

To avoid this, the WI cricket board has asked for the terms of the players’ contracts to be provided to them and as of today, the players have refused to do this, citing their rights for their private financial affairs to remain that way.

The above situation underscores the idea that players are feeling the pressure on their rights to earn revenue from their chosen sport as they see fit. Players worldwide would feel that they have a right to earn money to take advantage of the high-profile they enjoy and that any attempts to compromise this, when their sponsors have assured the team sponsors that they will in no way infringe upon their exclusive rights to the team, could be construed as a direct attack on their freedom to earn the money they believe they are entitled to earn. Notwithstanding the players’ personal issues with over-arching team sponsors are other sponsors who could, with some justification, claim that they are being denied access to players, who would give them fantastic public exposure, by a player’s board which doesn’t really have the right to do that. The feeling from other sponsors would be that the boards are merely afraid of being sued by the incumbent team sponsor so are taking steps to prevent this which are over the top.

Although the situation has largely been avoided in Australia due to player’s sponsorships not conflicting with team sponsorships, the threat remains. The Australian player’s association is known to be opposed to the idea of exclusive rights to the Australia cricket team for this reason. Their position is similar to the above; players have a right to earn revenue from sponsors as they see fit and shouldn’t be restricted from doing so by cricket boards which have signed exclusive sponsorships without direct consultation with the players first. The WI situation is slightly different in that the players signed their deals with C&W before the board signed theirs with Digicel but the potential for problems similar to above occurring in other countries is too great to ignore, particularly with greater representation of players’ interests by bodies such as the Australian cricketer’s association. Sure there’s no conflict with Adam Gilchrist’s choice of Valvoline to put on the back of his bat but will there be if Australia takes on a sponsor at a later date who sells similar products? At this stage it’s difficult to tell because this area of player interests hasn’t been tested in most cricketing countries. Certainly, no-one can give assurances at this stage that issues such as these won’t become a problem.

So what’s the solution? It’s been suggested that for both player and board sponsors to co-exist, cricket boards and players may need to avoid opting for exclusive contracts with sponsors. This, of course, will impact on their ability to attract large sponsorship deals and may well be regarded as unrealistic. The players may be asked to accept that personal sponsorships are not possible or at least have their contractual obligations significantly curtailed which again would be unrealistic because there are companies (and players) who will complain with much justification that players shouldn’t be hamstrung by unreasonably exclusive contractual obligations signed without their consultation and that restrictions on personal contracts will impact on their ability to attract sponsors as well.

A solution may well exist in deciding that there needs to be a little give on both sides; players relinquish their rights to individual sponsors but will be allowed to have a say in not only who sponsors the team but also be allowed to skim some revenue from the team sponsor for themselves. This could result in more revenue as a team sponsor will be able to make the terms of their contract as exclusive as they like knowing that individual sponsors won’t impinge upon their rights. This may in-turn attract more sponsors willing to bid for the exclusive contract with the given board of control, hence increasing the likely size of the revenue stream from the contract. As it stands, this is a longer-term suggestion as the ‘Indian solution’ detailed above may well prove to be the way the WI board will go (nothing is as attractive as a successful precedent) because the alternative is too awful to contemplate; a WI team minus its stars playing Tests against full-strength teams.

Sometimes, players and administrators need situations like this to remind each other of their value (fiscally) and sponsorships for both players and teams are ultimately good for the game. The revenue ensures the future viability of the game in those countries and also helps smaller and developing cricket-playing nations to survive in the global market-place where revenue from crowd sizes and governments isn’t forthcoming. However, it is hoped that the situation is avoided where the best players from a particular country aren’t selected due to contractual obligations with a private entity.

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