News Analysis: Has Oz sport lost its innocence?

News Analysis: Has Oz sport lost its innocence?
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Recent scandals have rocked Australian sport to its foundations. Although most of the controversy has involved domestic codes, it’s not gone unnoticed in the wider global sporting community. Andrew Jennings looks at what it all means for the once golden Australian Sports Brand

Over three months have passed since Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare and Sports Minister Kate Lundy stood in front of a packed press conference in Canberra to tell Australians that professional sport in their country was rotten.

The Australian Crime Commission’s (ACC) report released on that day, which looked into doping in sports and its links to organised crime, sent shockwaves through Australia’s sporting communities and beyond.

Evidence was scant but the tone and symbolism of the announcement left politicians and the press in no doubt: it was the darkest day in Australian sport’s history. Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she was “sickened” by the ACC report that made headlines across the globe.

The head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, John Fahey, said the findings were alarming, but did not come as a shock to him.

“That was the case in the Olympic movement with doping,” he said. “It’s the case in cycling – we’ve seen so much of in recent times.” Now sadly, said Fahey, it’s the case it seems here in Australia.

One paragraph of the report reads: “Australians are proud of their sporting ability and reputation as a nation of good sports, and our society expects high standards of behaviour from all people involved in sport.”

Fahey said he believes the ACC's findings would tarnish Australia’s traditional reputation as a nation that values good sportsmanship and fair play, while National Olympic boss John Coates stated that the publicity surrounding the report has clouded the once-great worldwide reputation of Australian sport.

Coates added that at a recent International Olympic Committee meeting in Switzerland the report was a hot topic of discussion, and he "certainly had a lot of questions and some explaining to do”.

The question must now be asked, given the fallout from ACC report, added to the bad behaviour of Australian swimmers at the London Olympics and recent public backlash against the incorporation of gambling into live sport, has the once golden ‘Australian Sports Brand’ been irrevocably tarnished?

“I don’t think that to be the case,” says Mark Coad, chief executive at PHD Australia. “I remain unconvinced that the brand is tarnished as a consequence of these scandals. One of the primary drivers of sport is popularity – whether that’s with viewers or sponsors, that’s its success.”

Coad adds that Australians “love to be winners”, so it’s more a case that “if we don’t perform well over time, audiences do decline, so in turn so does the value to sponsors”.

Mat Baxter, chief executive at UM Australia, believes there is now an image and reputation problem facing sport in Australia, which will have an effect on how media buying agencies operate in relation to it.

“Sport has always had a premium attached to it, because it has always disproportionately punched above its weight,” says Baxter.

“Association with sport has always been a shortcut for brands to be more credible, borrowing equity from sports stars and specific codes,” he adds, saying that he believes some of those benefits have been eroded and replaced with risk, following the scandals.

Erminio Putignano, former managing director at FutureBrand Australia and co-founder of Push Collective, said that the sense of innocence around sport Down Under has evaporated.

“Sport in Australia has been held in a higher consideration than elsewhere, with ethics and morality to the fore,” says Putignano. “While Europe has had its scandals for years, Australia has been relatively untouched. Paradoxically, it’s almost as if sport is maturing here to something similar to what it is in rest of the world. All of sudden Australians have lost their innocence to sport and will probably become more cynical as a result.”

Ken Shadbolt, fellow co-founder of Push, says that from a brand management point of view, the way the codes and organisations have reacted to the scandals has been important.

“In many ways, there's a sense of reassurance for the public and brands that these things have been brought to light and not been pushed under the carpet,” he says.

“At same time, the commercialisation of sport is growing, so it should be the role of the sponsors to put further pressure on the codes and the clubs to make sure things are monitored and scandals are avoided.”

Both Coad and Baxter believe that sport is highly resilient to scandal, and viewers will continue to switch on no matter what is happening off the field.

“The truth of it is that Australians will continue to turn up en masse to AFL and NRL games and the ratings will continue to be high,” says Baxter.

“There’s a degree of separation for punters about what happens off the field and the competition and entertainment on it. It’s very rare that you see a scandal in sport negatively impact on its participation and viewership among the average consumer."

Baxter says the amazing irony is that people will make their objections known when a scandal breaks, then watch the sport nonetheless. Coad adds that scandals will not see viewers turn their back on sports. In fact, he says, it could have the opposite effect and bring people back to a sport as they see it is cleaning up its act.

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