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It’s been a little over a week now since multinational chemicals company Ineos took over from Sky as title sponsor of the world’s richest cycling team. It hasn’t been the smoothest of sailing so far — so worried about environmentalist protestors was Ineos that the location of the team launch wasn’t revealed until the last minute. And then protestors ended up lining sections of roadside at the Tour de Yorkshire, the new team’s first race on home soil.
Team Sky was no stranger to controversy and its successor seems to be heading down a similar path. So why would Ineos be sponsoring a cycling team to begin with? What does the fifth-largest chemicals company in the world stand to gain from being associated with a cycling team? CyclingTips contributor Daniel Ostanek investigates.
Professional cycling couldn’t exist without sponsors and their money. For decades, the sport has been tied to, and sometimes almost defined by, the brands and companies plastered on the front of the top teams’ jerseys.
The likes of Mapei, Molteni, Quick Step and Festina – companies that aren’t exactly Coca Cola or Nike – are intricately linked with the most memorable moments in the sport’s history. Over the years, cycling fans have cheered on foreign banks, adhesive manufacturers, chewing gum brands, and the agglomeration of Italian companies that adorns Androni Giocattoli’s jersey every season.
Things have changed in recent years, however. Not just in cycling, but across almost any sport you can name, as entire countries and big corporations make their move into sport to try and flip the script on public perception.
Or at least that’s how it seems. In cycling, teams have enjoyed the support of mining company Orica, and oil and gas giant Total. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates currently own teams, while numerous state-owned Kazakh firms sponsor Astana. Then there’s the newest of the lot, Ineos, taking Sky’s place as the backer of cycling’s richest team.
But why? What do these sponsors have to gain from sponsoring a cycling team? For 27 years, the Galbusera family sponsored a team through their company Lampre (now UAE Team Emirates) because they were passionate about cycling. Countless other companies have sought product sales and brand awareness. But for a multinational chemical company like Ineos, the motive for getting into sports sponsorship is perhaps less clear.
To shed some light on the situation, I spoke to Professor Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University in Great Britain.
“Historically, if you go back to the mid-to-early 20th century – and it still happens now – the hobby motive is really strong in sponsorships,” Chadwick says, noting that it hasn’t been untypical for company bosses to get involved in a sport just because they enjoy it.
That is, at least in part, the case with Ineos, whose founder, chairman and majority shareholder, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, is a cyclist himself. The 66-year-old billionaire — reportedly the richest man in Great Britain — is a sailing fan too, to the extent that Ineos also sponsors an America’s Cup team.
“So, on one level you can say that it’s one hobby, and that the hobby motive is just one part of what they’re doing,” continues Chadwick. “But typically, sponsorship is all about raising awareness and enhancing brand recall, so that when people see a name they think ‘Oh, I know them; they’re cycling sponsors.’ And so, it begins to shape people’s perceptions, change their attitudes and behaviours.”
But Ineos isn’t selling its plastics and petrochemicals straight to the consumer. As Chadwick notes: “It’s not like Heineken and Champions League [soccer]; you don’t pop out for a couple of cans of Ineos at half-time.”
While business-to-business sales and awareness are a consideration, none of these ideas appear to be at the heart of Ineos’ sponsorship.
“The essence of this particular sponsorship, for me, is kind of two-fold,” says Chadwick. “The first one, which has been discussed a little, is that Jim Ratcliffe is a Brexit supporter. And this is almost quintessentially about ‘Brand Britain’.
“I think there’s conceivably a covert political message in there with Ineos in particular. It’s kind of preserving what is now the world’s best cycling team, making sure they’ve got the money to remain dominant, and ensuring that ‘Brand Britain’ doesn’t cow in the face of its typically continental European competition.”
Ahead of the Giro d’Italia, team boss David Brailsford said that a Ratcliffe-owned team would be a “British project,” leading him to choose Ineos from four or five sponsor options. That does, in part, tie in to Chadwick’s idea about the sponsorship.
“The second explanation is that it’s ‘greenwashing’,” Chadwick says. “It’s essentially using a sponsorship or relationship with sport as a way of essentially deflecting away from concerns about that organisation or that sponsor and possibly a way to changing people’s perceptions.
“So instead of thinking about Ineos fracking or Ineos pollution we’re thinking about Ineos cycling, Ineos success, Ineos winning.”
Of course, in cycling, the same applies to the likes of Orica, Bahrain, the UAE and Total. How well it actually works though – at least in terms of endearing those teams and brands to the general public – is certainly up for debate.
Thousands of anti-fracking demonstrators lined the course at Ineos’ inaugural race, the Tour de Yorkshire. The team also won Yorkshire, with young Brit Chris Lawless. In one race, we saw a microcosm of the public relations push and pull behind Ineos’ move into cycling. It associated itself with victory, and at the very same race protesters reminded us of the company’s environmental record.
“It’s a judgement call that people like Ratcliffe and the Qataris [who own French soccer team Paris Saint-Germain] make,” says Chadwick. “I think there is this kind of misguided belief, that, by engaging in sport, it somehow automatically buys you this legitimacy and so any concerns that might otherwise be there about your human rights record or your record on fracking would disappear.
“But I think that, with the onset of social and digital media, and also with consumers and sports fans being savvy more generally, it’s becoming much more difficult to cut through the noise and present this kind of ethical face.”
For instance, many cycling fans — and those beyond the sport, too — were quick to criticise Israel for using the Giro d’Italia last year to help ‘sportswash’ its reputation. And beyond cycling, Qatar has also seen its ‘sportswashing’ efforts backfire. The country will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, but it has come at a cost, with issues like the use of slave workers, the illegality of homosexuality, and a poor human rights record being put under the microscope.
“I think Qatar genuinely believed that they would bid for the World Cup and people would love them,” Chadwick says. “But what it’s done is effectively shine a light on its failings and misdemeanours. And I think that’s what we’re already seeing to a certain extent with Ineos, and we’ll see more and more with Ineos, but also with these others too.”
“As a judgement call, I think it’s increasingly become a more difficult one for these companies and countries to make.”
Ratcliffe says his sponsorship has “nothing to do with [sportwashing] at all.” There may be personal reasons for Ratcliffe to buy Team Sky, like a wish to become another Galbusera, or a more reserved Oleg Tinkov, perhaps. In the end, whether this sponsorship was bred of a desire to associate Ratcliffe’s company with a “green” sport, or is simply a rich man’s plaything, the end result is a brighter light shining on Ineos. Given the company’s controversial actions, that may have the opposite effect Ratcliffe was hoping for.