Thursday, May 28, 2015

When charges of corruption in sport are made what should a commercial sponsor do? A personal story.

Fifteen years ago I was responsible for Shell's sponsorship of the Sharjah cricket tournament. It was, in the context of big global sponsorships, small beer. But in the Middle East and especially because of TV  coverage in South Asia, it was a valuable commercial activity where the returns well exceeded the modest cost.

As a cricket nut I personally enjoyed the close involvement I had with the sport and, particularly, the relationship the sponsorship gave me with cricketers and the media. From Sachin Tendulkar and Richie Benaud downwards! But this close contact, especially with cricket writers and commentators, meant that I soon learned that all at Sharjah was not what it seemed to be. In 2001, when I was still in the Middle East and responsible for the sponsorship, Jonathan Agnew the BBC Cricket Correspondent said this:

"Sharjah has been pinpointed as being the centre of this activity [match fixing] and, again, this is entirely plausible. I. would swear under oath that two of the dozen or so matches I have witnessed on that desert ground over the years were fixed: both of them by Pakistan."

What Agnew was saying was the same as others close to events had been telling me "in confidence" for a while. So what should I do? Shell's support of the tournament was in itself perfectly respectable and above board. The allegations of questionable practices at Sharjah were just that - allegations. I did nothing. Later the Condon enquiry into corruption in cricket whilst not giving Sharjah a clean bill of health in 2002 did report that:

"They have implemented whatever we recommended. I am happy with the measures taken here (Sharjah) to prevent silly access to potential corrupters," 

My own view is that there was something of a cover up going on for reasons that are unclear. Certainly the focus on "corrupters" - referring to Sub-Continent illegal bookmakers - was only part of the problem. To fix a match or events within a match you need more than crooked bookies - you need crooked players and/or officials as well ! From 2003 for seven years no more One Day Internationls were played at Sharjah which may be a coincidence, or it may not ! 

For a commercial sponsor, as those of FIFA are now finding, mud can stick if what you sponsor is of questionable integrity. But it is not as easy as it might seem. Sharjah was not a significant problem for Shell or the other sponsors - but it could have been. Should I have pulled the plug as soon I was aware of the allegations? On reflection I probably should have...

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