FIFA’s choice of Qatar as host of the 2022 men’s football World Cup has been controversial since day one. Questions continue to be raised about the nation’s attitude to human rights, and its treatment of migrant workers.
To some, the entire event exemplifies the concept of “sportswashing” – using sport as a tool of soft power, to clean up (and distract from) a murky political or humanitarian reputation. And as a PR exercise, the men’s World Cup is a massive deal. The last one, hosted by another controversial host nation, Russia, attracted 3.5 billion viewers across the world.
The use of sport as a means to improve perceptions is not a new phenomenon. Brand management through sport has long been high on the agenda of many of the world’s best known companies.
This is partly because sport is able to evoke such powerful emotions from fans. Supporters often form strong bonds with teams and individual athletes – and those bonds can be used to great effect by corporations (as major sponsors) and nations (as event hosts) to improve their public image and popularity.
And of course, it’s not just football which is susceptible to accusations of sportswashing. There was criticism recently of major boxing events in Saudi Arabia, and the 2022 Winter Olympic Games being held in Beijing. Meanwhile British Cycling was accused of “greenwashing” – similar to sportswashing but with a particular focus on the environment – after it announced a new sponsorship deal with Shell.
But while critics rail against the tactic of using sporting events to try and alter public perceptions, what do the fans themselves make of it? Do accusations of sportswashing and greenwashing really matter to them?
Our recent study, which looked at sports fans and the relationship they have with a team, suggests that allegations of being involved with sportswashing (or any other questionable behaviour from the team) do not really matter.
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