Herald on Sunday

Ineos deal will put NZ Rugby in a pickle


When it comes to sponsorshi­p and the All Blacks kit, New Zealand Rugby is wedged between a rock and a hard place.

The national body faces an impossible balancing act trying to achieve a host of contradict­ory goals in a world where half the nation considers any branding on the kit as unwanted graffiti and the other half can accepts the financial imperative to sell sponsorshi­p but they will still be on social media channels to judge and condemn the commercial­isation of the national rugby team.

Accused of selling a little piece of the All Blacks’ soul if they do, or face financial ruin if they don’t, NZR can’t win when it comes to sponsorshi­p on the uniform.

In all-but signing a deal with UK petrochemi­cal firm Ineos, they have made it even harder for themselves. An already sceptical public that doesn’t love sponsorshi­p on the All Blacks kit will have a tough time accepting that a company kneedeep in fossil fuels is the right fit for the national team.

And that’s what is important here. NZR shouldn’t have to defend their decision to sell sponsorshi­p, but they do need to be held to account for their choice of partner.

It’s not so much naive as patently silly to think of the All Blacks as a sports team. They are a business, valued at $3.8 billion by equity firm Forsyth Barr.

While there is an inner purist in mostly everyone that would rather not see corporate logos splattered on the kit, the larger and more difficult voice to block out is that of the inner financial pragmatist.

There would be an admirable piety about a cleanskin All Blacks kit, but it would deny the team the bucketload of cash they need to be successful. If flogging a few square centimetre­s of fabric space to a corporate bidder can raise millions, it provides a strong basis from which to argue that kit sponsorshi­p is, if nothing else, a necessary evil.

However vexed this business has been in the past, it has become moreso as scrutiny on the ethical and ecological conduct of global corporatio­ns has never been greater in this age of social activism. NZR realise that while they have won, begrudging­ly, a public mandate to sell real estate on the All Blacks kit, it still comes with a requiremen­t to do so while trying to honour the sanctity and standing of the team’s reputation.

And this is where the difficulty sits as there is no agreement about what constitute­s an ethically sound or morally strong corporatio­n.

Airlines underpin the entire global tourism industry, but they are prolific users of fossil fuel. Banks enable businesses to operate and people to buy houses, yet they also fund plenty of things they shouldn’t and some, reputable ones at that, haven’t asked enough questions about where some of their investors made their money. Technology companies streamline businesses, but they also encourage too much screen use and prolonged bouts of physical inactivity.

There’s an argument to say there simply isn’t an appropriat­e sponsor anywhere in the world and inevitably there will be some kind of public or social media backlash to the news that the All Blacks are close to signing a deal with Ineos.

But this is not as black and white as some protesters want to believe and Ineos are another grey case in point.

They are a chemical company which means they can’t look Greta Thunberg in the eye without quivering and yet their products are essential to many sustainabl­e initiative­s such as wind turbines and solar panels as well as critical medicines which preserve life.

The Twitterati can condemn the

They are a chemical company which means they can’t look Greta Thunberg in the eye without quivering.

UK company but they should realise they will most likely be doing so from a device that Ineos had a considerab­le role in bringing to life.

To some it will appear Ineos are using the All Blacks to “green wash”.

It could be said that their chief executive — Sir Jim Ratcliffe — is appeasing the angry forces who maraud on social media by spending a tiny amount of his personal fortune on sport, to detract attention from Ineos’ core business. But there Ineos are driven to become carbon zero by 2050 and are investing in the All Blacks and other major sports teams as part of a genuine commitment to clean up.

Also, isn’t it better to green wash than to not green wash? And sponsoring the All Blacks will presumably put greater accountabi­lity on Ineos to stay on top of their ecological and environmen­tal commitment­s.

All Blacks sponsorshi­p is an emotive topic and NZR will find that once it confirms its deal with Ineos, the gap between the rock and the hard place becomes even narrower.

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