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Kieren Perkins discusses corporate sponsorship in sport

26 October 2022

Australian Sports Commission CEO Kieren Perkins OAM speaks to SEN Radio host Gerard Whateley about balancing athletes’ values and opinions with those of the private sector when it comes to corporate sponsorship of sport.

Interview broadcast on the Whateley program on Tuesday, 26 October 2022.

Gerard Whateley: for the past week Australian sport has been deep in a conversation around the need for corporate dollars against the rights of athletes to stand by, express and live their values and when those two issues collide.

The centrepiece for it has been Australian netball the chief executive of Netball Australia joined us yesterday it's come at the expense of a $15 million sponsorship with Hancock Prospects, and Pat Cummins has been prepared to stand and say he doesn't want to personally align with Alinta, a fossil fuel company, but he is prepared to wear the shirt by the binding agreements of the sponsorship with the governing body.

There's a lot of Henny Penny-ing around this, and then it goes deep into the prevailing politics of the time. Eminently sensible, that's the man in charge of Australian sport at the moment and uniquely qualified. He has lived this as the athlete and he is now living it as the administrator, the chief executive of the Australian Sports Commission is Kieren Perkins.

Kieren welcome back to the program.

Kieren Perkins: Thanks Gerard

GW: I'm so interested from your perspective, what have we learnt from the netball-Hancock Prospecting sponsorship debacle and the cautionary tale that might be there for all of sport?

KP: That's a big question. There's a lot of things. look, I think first and foremost, we have to recognise that this is kind of been interesting in the commentary from the casual observers in the universe is this idea that athletes should just gratefully accept the money put their name to anything and move on and in reality the reason why corporations want to sponsor sport is to get the reflected goodwill, leadership and respect the athletes garner through their performances to then influence the broader universe’s view of that organisation and vice versa.

You know, both sides of these dialogues need to be able to come together with a good set of values, understanding and respect around what's required and so I think, you know, all sports and corporates need to wrap their head around this, that the athletes aren’t automatons and they aren't just there to serve others’ whims, they do have an opinion and certainly societally things have changed greatly since my generation when we probably did tend to just say thank-you, sir, and move on.

GW: Yes

KP: So we need that dialogue to be open and transparent amongst all parties to agree before we go and commit people to, you know, to put their name on things that they may have an issue with.

GW: So to this goes a little bit to what America called the ‘shut up and dribble debate’ do you believe athletes have the right to speak up for what they believe in and to live their values, standards and morals?

KP: As every human being on the planet has a right to do. I think this is the thing, you know, there seems to be this one-sightedness that’s come out in a lot of the dialogue over the last few days, as though the athletes should be just grateful that, you know, they're in the position that they’re in and bend over and take whatever is handed to them. And that's just unacceptable. They are human beings who work and dedicate themselves to their cause and they have a right to be heard and have their views put forward.

I think what sport needs to have to continue to evolve and do better at it is actually being transparent about the conversation in the first place. Because if you take netball as an example from all that I've seen and know when the parties sat down and had a conversation, they were able to find an element of common ground and understanding which may have, you know, avoided a lot of this drama in the first place.

GW: Is there a risk for sport, so sport is all-encompassing word in this instance, is there a risk for sport, that there are certain industries, which will be hesitant now, to commit their corporate dollars.

KP: Look that is possible, but I think one of the things that you can't change about the human condition is that we all, we all have opinions and we all have things that we stand for, don't stand for agree with don't agree with. And, you know, I'm pretty confident that when it's all said and done that every organisation and every group of individuals, if they are actually able to clearly communicate what their values and beliefs are, what the things are that they are willing to, you know, stand up and be heard about, there's a lot of very good corporations in this country that make good money, that are in a position to sponsor sport and finding the right partnerships is absolutely key.

And I'm actually not afraid that this incident is going to somehow cause a major, you know, run of cash away from sport. I think, you know, history for different reasons but still the same when tobacco sponsorship was outlawed. You know, there was screams of death to sport and how it was all going to end, and it didn't take very long for other companies that now saw space for them to step into and support sports that they valued and groups that valued them to build a partnership.

GW: That's the exact case that's been on my mind for the week, Kieren. So is there a message for some corporates, and there was a little bit in the statement that was released as sport shouldn't be a forum to debate politics and values and that sort of thing.

Well, it should be, shouldn't it? Corporates should expect that there is a level of scrutiny that when they get involved, it's not the wash, it just doesn't insulate them entirely from such debates.

KP: Gerard, the thing that I find really quite ironic about that comment is that, you know, that is a very one-sided, hypocritical view. So athlete shouldn't have views opinions but the corporations that are looking to take advantage of the athletes’ goodwill and reputation should be allowed to do or say what they want from the athletes’ success that like that that that is a completely hypocritical statement.

And I think at the end of the day, you know, different industries are going to find different supporters who want to align and be involved with them, do the work and find those, don't just belly ache because, you know, somebody doesn't agree with you. And I think we just need to be a little bit more sensible and realistic in these dialogues, and also accept the generational change.

Anyone that thinks that the current younger generations, who have been brought up to have a social conscience, have been brought up to have an opinion, they've been brought up to tell you what they think, are just all of a sudden going to shut up because we disagree with them. I don't understand that, we raised these people, why do we now all of a sudden think that we should pick and choose when they do and don't have an opinion.

But the athletes also need to understand that there is consequence to the choices that they make, and that they need to decide, you know, which partners they’ll work with, which they won't, and the financial consequences that might have for them in their sport they move forward. Which is, you know, where that transparent conversation needs to come in, because I've seen too much dialogue from athletes and players’ unions that is completely ignorant of the reality of, you know, the financial circumstances that most sport finds itself in.

And we just need to be a little bit open with each other about that.

GW: How cognisant do athletes need to be that those corporate dollars are absolutely pivotal to the operation and indeed the survival of their sports.

KP: Look it's variable across different sports, right, like, I’m not quite sure that I buy into the ‘but, you know, their very survival is dependent on it’. I think when you contemplate the amount of funding that governments at all levels, you know in my instance through the Australian Sports Commission, put into elite sport, their ability to function and operate is, you know, they can do that to levels, everyone will tell you there's never enough money, I agree, we do need to find more sustainable and consistent funding resources. But, you know, if you look at a sport like netball as the specific example at this point in time, you know, the aspirations they have and the growth that they're looking for and the money that they were trying to invest in, in taking their sport into a much higher professional pane, that's where, you know. these challenges have come up.

For every little girl in Australia, who wants to play netball this weekend, nothing about the conversation that's happening with the Diamonds will stop that and, you know, we all need to understand the role we play and the influence that we have more broadly, but certainly without sponsorship sport will stagnate and wither and we definitely don't want that.

GW: How thoughtful are you with the Australian Sports Commission and the corporate partners that you take on and will take on in the future and where they sit in the in the grander scheme of society.

KP: We're always very thoughtful and in fact Gerard, one of the things that I found interesting in this dialogue is, you know, for me, as an athlete, I know it's been 20-plus years, but, you know, the corporations that I signed contracts with to sponsor me, the conversation started with an alignment of values and beliefs and I never entertained signing up with organisations that I didn't see an alignment with.

And, you know, that is, that is just a part of the dialogue that we all need to have and this is, this is not, you know, the ignorance ‘woke’ arguments or, you know, some of the other political jibes that the people in power who don't like the answer are pushing, this is, you know, human beings whether their business people, athletes or anyone else in between having the right to make choices about the things that they will support and who they will support. We all do it every day.

GW: Yes. And as we finish Kieren, so to have the number one office holder in Australian sport, which long has been the Australian Test captain Pat Cummins make a stand, how powerful do you think that has been?

KP: I think it’s certainly going to have a conversation raised, and I think for a lot of athletes who have seen Pat do that, it’s probably given them a little confidence that they can have an opinion and their opinion needs to be recognised and needs to be heard but I, as I said, I don’t think this will lead to some major rebalancing and a rush away from sport at the end of the day. Any corporation knows that people they employ, and by proxy there is an employment connection to these people, they don’t always agree with everything that’s done. But if we’re respectful and open and transparent about those dialogues and do it properly, it should make us better, not weaker.

GW: Kieren I know it’s a busy day, it’s a budget day in Canberra so good luck on behalf of sport in what comes tonight.

KP: Thanks Gerard, appreciate it.

GW: Kieren Perkins the chief executive of the Australian Sports Commission, so an eminently sensible contribution to a firestorm debate.

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