Tennis Australia could be set for a whole new world of pain, both financially and reputationally, after handling a controversial protest.
As Australian Open organizers reversed a decision to ban spectators from wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Where’s Peng Shuai?” Tennis Australia (TA) could now face a backlash from Chinese sponsors, costing them millions of dollars in support.
Video emerged over the weekend of security and police asking a Melbourne Park fan to remove his shirt highlighting the plight of the Chinese tennis star.
Peng, a former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion, sparked fear around the world when she ‘disappeared’ after making allegations of sexual abuse against a former high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party.
But the fallout from TA’s handling of the situation is not over.
Sports industry analyst and author of sports superpowerBeijing-based Mark Dreyer warned that it was impossible for Chinese brands and broadcasters to separate politics and business from sports.
“These things are considered incredibly sensitive and non-negotiable from a Chinese perspective,” he told the Australian Financial Review.
“We’ve seen in the past that sponsors would pull out en masse if there was something they didn’t like.”
In 2018, TA signed a five-year deal with Chinese distillery Luzhou Laojiao that would include prominent signage at Rod Laver and Margaret Court arenas.
Then-director of revenue Richard Heaselgrave described it as “one of the biggest deals ever negotiated by Tennis Australia”, implying it was worth the same as a five-year sponsorship with the automaker Kia, which is rumored to exceed $85 million.
In 2018, TA chief executive Craig Tiley added that it was “by far the biggest deal we’ve ever made in China”.
“Indeed, this is one of the biggest partnership deals we have ever entered into. It helps us move very strongly into the next phase of our global business growth,” he said, as the organization hopes to cement the grand slam as one for the Asia-Pacific region.
But the issue with Peng has made balancing China relations and reputational issues tricky for TA, Dreyer said, with the financial gains potentially not worth the risk to the organization’s public perception.
“If you take the money, then you are seen… as toeing the line of the Chinese government, and that in turn creates a huge backlash overseas, as you alienate your home audience and fans. “, did he declare.
He added that the organizations had to make a choice between China and the rest of the world.
“And as big as the Chinese market is, and even though everyone wants to be connected to the Chinese market, it’s still not bigger than the rest of the world combined,” he said.
Chinese brands also have the form of withdrawing from sponsorship if they are not satisfied, a situation that occurred in the American basketball league’s NBA, after someone from the Houston Rockets tweeted an image. which said “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong” in 2019.
While the tweet was deleted and an apology issued, Chinese broadcaster CCTV, which is currently a partner of Tennis Australia, responded by stopping showing NBA games.
Meanwhile, Chinese sponsors, such as smartphone maker Vivo and coffeehouse chain Luckin Coffee, also pulled out, costing the NBA millions.
“It was 2019 and the NBA is still trying to get its business back,” Dreyer said.
“The commercial benefits, among others, are significant, often immediate and lasting.
“The parallels (with the Australian Open) are very clear.”