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In an era of ‘sport-washing’, what’s the goal for ESG?

Can asset managers with holdings in football clubs justify their ESG commitments if those clubs now take the field against Newcastle United?


Pete Carvill

Sport has never really been just a question of sport. It has been, and probably always will be, a palette for the political too – to the extent that a term is increasingly in evidence these days: ‘sport-washing’.

Despite branding such definitions ‘presumptuous and troubling’, Policy Forum suggested in 2018 that ‘sport-washing’ is, “identified as being employed by authoritarian regimes that use mega-sports events to reboot their reputations and distract audiences from their horrific human-rights records. In another definition, sporting events are used to sideline critical views of a government and serve to launder its image and reputation”.

Arguably the most notorious example is not from the modern sporting era. The 1936 Summer Olympics sought to project a much-different image of Nazi Germany to the world than was the reality – along the way, giving birth to many of the modern filming methods used in TV sports (and, strangely and obliquely, Star Wars).

Subsequent repressive governments have sought out the Olympics to burnish their own image, such as in 2016, when the world conveniently forgot for a few weeks how harshly the Chinese government can treat elements of its own citizens. Any outcry surrounding that, however, was swiftly forgotten by the time the Sochi Winter Olympics rolled around a couple of years later – despite allegations of the Russian State’s involvement in, for example, the killing of citizens of a foreign nation on their home soil and assassinations on the streets of Berlin.

These are just the major events that occur every few years, but everyday sport is not immune from laundering the reputations of regimes. In boxing, recent years have seen major events such as the rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz head to Riyadh, along with the final of the World Boxing Super Series.

It is also apparent – though a theme that is still little picked up on by his biographers – that Muhammad Ali gets a free pass on popularising sports-washing, given that he traded on his public image as a civil rights defender to take money from and legitimise every dictatorship in the 1970s through what was known as ‘The Ali Circus’.

Only the names change

So we land in 2021 and it is not a new story that a brutal dictatorship has decided to direct its money into sport. The only thing that has changed is the names. As reported widely last week, the Public Investment Fund of the Saudi government now owns 80% of Newcastle United of English football’s Premier league. I am not going to talk about the benefits this will reportedly bring to the club because to do so would undermine the moral bankruptcy of such a transaction.

Here, however, is Amnesty International’s current overview of Saudi Arabia: “Repression of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly intensified. Among those harassed, arbitrarily detained, prosecuted and/or jailed were government critics, women’s rights activists, human rights defenders, relatives of activists, journalists, members of the Shi’a minority and online critics of government responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Virtually all known Saudi Arabian human rights defenders inside the country were detained or imprisoned at the end of the year. Grossly unfair trials continued before the Specialised Criminal Court and other courts. Courts resorted extensively to the death penalty and people were executed for a wide range of crimes. Migrant workers were even more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because of the pandemic, and thousands were arbitrarily detained in dire conditions, leading to an unknown number of deaths.”

The regime has attempted to soften its image in recent years – for example, awarding women the right to drive in 2018. And it has ploughed its money into events such as the Future Investment Initiative, known as ‘Davos in the Desert’, which began in 2017, and MDL Beast, a music festival that attracted Instagram and other so-called ‘influencers’ who were duly lambasted for their presence. But there was still time to slaughter a dissident Saudi journalist in horrific circumstances.

A regime this brutal has been embraced by a major English Premier League club. This is especially galling when that club has its own diversity and inclusion page. There is a stench of hypocrisy here, even when its own LGBT fans state unconvincingly that they think the deal will influence Saudi behaviour on its own turf (spoiler alert – it won’t).

Here comes the investment angle

So, you may be asking, where is the investment angle on this? Well, football clubs have increasingly been a good investment. As Bloomberg wrote a few weeks ago when AC Milan played Atletico de Madrid in the Champions League: “For the financial world, it’s also a matchup between a hedge fund based in New York and a credit fund headquartered in Los Angeles. Elliott Management Corp. took control of AC Milan in 2018 after Chinese owner Li Yonghong defaulted on debt obligations. Funds managed by Ares Management Corporation acquired a 34% stake in LaLiga champion Atletico in June.”

Nor is that an isolated instance. As The Conversation wrote in March: “Russian oligarchs, Gulf nations, and Chinese billionaires have regularly bought into European football clubs over the last 20 years. But more recently the money has been flowing across the Atlantic as US private equity firms have seen a lucrative opportunity, caused partly by the pandemic.”

That piece continued: “RedBird already holds a stake in French club Toulouse, while Bordeaux (General American Capital Partners and King Street Capital Management) and AS Nancy (New City Capital) are also US-owned. Meanwhile, Troyes FC was bought last year by City Football Group, in which Californian private equity investor Silver Lake owns shares. The story is the same in Italy, where the Elliott Management Corporation owns AC Milan and where a private equity consortium consisting of CVC Capital Partners, Advent Capital Management and FSI Capital are pursuing the acquisition of a £1.5bn stake in the new media business of premier league Serie A.”

If American, Chinese and Middle Eastern money is flowing into this space, European money cannot be far behind.

ESG is a big consideration nowadays, with every investment fund, asset manager, bank, and ice cream shop falling over one another to prove how worthy they are. Not all of them continually live up to it, as we said about Vanguard’s charitable arm last week with its repeated fundings of anti-LGBT groups in the US despite celebrating diversity publicly on social media.

So here is an idea. For every investment firm that invests in a Premier League club from now on, they should insist that in line with their ESG commitments that that club – no matter if it is Liverpool, Everton, Manchester United or any other side – will not play any game against Newcastle United while it is owned by the Saudis. They should refuse to play it, not turn up on the day, and leave half the pitch empty.

Sure, they will lose money, but if they have an ESG commitment, should they not stick by it?