26 Words Ends 27 Years

There was an inevitability about the short statement from Diageo last night that it was ending its 27-year partnership with London Irish.

Earlier this week we wrote that the decision would be taken behind closed doors and perhaps with a short statement.

The statement actually ran to 26 words, one less than the length in years of the partnership.

They were carefully chosen and reflect the unease felt by many over the continued ramifications of Paddy Jackson’s behaviour that was exposed as part of his trial in Belfast last week.

It is fully accepted that he walked from court cleared of all charges. It is also fully accepted that he has a right to continue his career and rehabilitate his reputation. It’s just that it is easier for that rehabilitation to take place somewhere else.

Diageo’s statement read “We have met with the club to express our concerns. Their recent decision is not consistent with our values and so we have ended our sponsorship.”

London Irish seemed a little bitter that it had come to this saying that they had sought a meeting with Diageo management at the end of last month, albeit after the signing.

There are those who suggest this is in some way a sponsor seeking to influence matters over which they should not have control. That is just rubbish and completely, perhaps wilfully misunderstands the dynamic that exists between sport and commerce.

Brands look to associate with sport for a variety of reasons from ones driven by personal interest to ones designed to drive affinity and sales.

All have their place. All are based on the principle of partnership that they lend financial support and gain something by an association to the sporting organisation.

Like any relationship, it has to be based on a mutual sense of working together. Few if any sponsors in the real world would want to have influence over team selection but when that becomes an issue in the wider environment beyond the white lines then they are entitled to express a view.

It is not a comfortable position for a sponsor to be in. They want to celebrate wins and enrich fan’s experience of being a supporter. They don’t want to be doorstepped for their views on governance or behaviour.

They care about reputation, Diageo more than most. A personality like Conor McGregor does well in terms of endorsement deals but they are very specifically from brands who relish the bad boy reputation.

London Irish does not trade on that same sense of laddishness. It has always been a community club, rooted in the Irish community in London and the South East.

Guinness has long been a part of that community, and of Rugby.  It is a partner of the IRFU and would have closely monitored the Jackson and Olding trial last year, before and after the verdict.  The IRFU’s swift and decisive decision to end the players contracts will have removed any unease at the overall partnership with the sport.

In January the company came on board as title sponsor of the Guinness Six Nations, a multi-million Euro partnership that would dwarf whatever sums were invested in London Irish.

The club knew what it was putting on the line in signing Paddy Jackson.  As a rugby player, he has immense talent, as an individual, he made mistakes in the past but is entitled to seek redemption.

They made the call that it was worth the risk.  Diageo weighed up the same sense of risk versus reward and came down on the other side.

It was their right to do so and many would have expected the same.  Of course, it is divisive but standing by a set of values is going to be different for any one individual or organisation.

We might all have made a different decision.  You have to respect the right of those though for whom those What’s App messages and the connotations of behaviour and character they suggested.

There is an old school mentality that we should not become too sanitised, that boys will be boys and that sponsors should keep their noses out.

For them, a ‘spit roast’ is a piece of meat.  They are entitled to hold that opinion, just don’t ask us all to laugh alongside.

Listen back to Rob Hartnett on last night’s GameOn programme on 2FM

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