Rebecca Huntley Columnist

Rebecca is a director of The Mind & Mood Report, an author and social commentator with a background in publishing, academia and politics. She holds degrees in law and film studies and a PhD in Gender Studies.

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Once were heroes: Brands beware as sport moves to the dark side

Published 13 February 2013 07:34, Updated 13 February 2013 11:40

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Once were heroes: Brands beware as sport moves to the dark side

Once adored by millions, Lance Armtstrong’s doping-fuelled fall from grace shows the perils of a focus on individuals in brands’ relationships with sport. Photo: Reuters

The doping and match-fixing scandal enveloping Australian sport at present has implications for brands that rely on sportsmen and women as brand ambassadors. First there was Tiger. Then Lance. Now this, all against the backdrop of endless scandals involving player bad behaviour from the usual suspects in football and the not-so-usual suspects in swimming.

Last year I wrote a blog in the wake of Australia’s average performance in the Olympics about the challenge of using individual sportsmen and women in marketing and brand campaigns in such an environment. I argued that brands needed to do more than attach themselves to individual sporting stars. They needed to champion involvement in sport in general and at all levels and promote the virtues of sportsmanship.

It’s not like the way they play a game of footy drives your life decisions... Some of them are idiots, dickheads

Shifting the focus away from individuals to something bigger is necessary, especially when you realise that sports stars aren’t the role models or heroes they once were in the eyes of the public.

It’s clear from recent research we did with young Australians that they are sceptical of the notion that we should respect sportspeople for anything other than their physical prowess.

As one young man put it: “You respect sportsmen but you don’t look up to them. It’s not like the way they play a game of footy drives your life decisions. It’s more when we were young. Now when you are older you know about the dark side of the game. Some of them are idiots, dickheads.”

Of course there are some cleanskins out there – like Roger Federer (“he never loses the plot, always seems calm”) and Susie O’Neill (“she was so famous but didn’t let it get to her”). But these figures are admired because they are authentic as well as successful at what they do (and because they defy expectations about sportspeople). Their peers who can’t maintain that success and combine it with a “down-to-earth” quality get judged harshly.

The dark side of sport is going to dominate the discussion for some time, which means that brands that want to continue to associate themselves with sport will have to find another way to do it.