Crown case begs question of just what sponsors NRL clubs would refuse
Journalist, author and columnist
February 12, 2021 — 3.48pm
Crown Resorts, Crown Resorts … Knew I’d seen that name somewhere … Oh right, the National Rugby League.
For much of the past decade, the South Sydney Rabbitohs (pride of the league, everyone’s second favourite club) ran onto the field decked out as a casino sign which blacked out a background of cardinal and myrtle. For half of that decade, the Melbourne Storm (most successful and professionally run team of the era) were a 13-man billboard for Crown. The Wests Tigers briefly wore a CrownBet logo in 2017.
Grand finals, television exposure, admired and beloved clubs with the strongest values the sport can offer: this was what Crown got out of rugby league. In return, what did rugby league get out of Crown? And was it in any position to ask?
Had Crown stuck to its normal business – merely ruining the lives of people addicted to false promise – that would have been acceptable. Gambling companies, as sponsors of sporting organisations, are not only permitted but have the red carpet rolled out for them.
On the other hand tobacco companies, who merely ruin the lives of people addicted to false promise, are not. (It’s worth noting that in New Zealand, beacon of sanity, where gambling sponsors were not permitted on jerseys, NRL teams had to remove their Crown logos.)
But Crown isn’t just a gambling company. As Patricia Bergin, SC’s report confirmed this week, Crown went the extra mile for its shareholders and crossed into criminality, money laundering, racketeering, influence peddling and much, much more. You would think that the balance had finally changed and an NRL club would actually dump a sponsor because of reputational damage.
Credit:Illustration: Simon Letch
You mightn’t have heard it before: rugby league can’t stand too close to a sponsor because of the reputational damage.
And yet, at the time of writing, Crown Resorts is still on the Rabbitohs’ website as one of the great club’s partners and its jersey sleeve sponsor.
In one of those moments of irony so delicious they should be put in a jar and preserved with formaldehyde, it was Crown who dumped the Melbourne Storm in 2018.
Storm chairman Bart Campbell, speaking in a Federal Court case supporting the NRL’s stand-down rule as it applied to Jack de Belin, said the club had lost $500,000 in sponsorship, and was unable to replace the seven-figure deal it had lost from Crown Resorts. Apparently even Tony Soprano would have blushed to have his name near de Belin’s.
South Sydney’s most famous moment in more than five decades took place with a Crown logo on top of the famous cardinal and myrtle.Credit:Getty
Crown’s hypocrisy was, as ever, only tactical. Crown was building in Sydney and liked being linked to Sydney’s favourite NRL club. As it dropped the Storm, it shifted its name exclusively to the more watched, more popular Rabbitohs, whose owner Russell Crowe was such good friends with Crown’s major shareholder James Packer that Packer bought a stake in the football team. How this ownership is impacting Souths’ response to the Crown scandal (assuming Packer remembers he does in fact have a piece of the Rabbits) is still to play out.
The Crown logo had previously defaced – sorry, graced - the chest of the famous Souths jersey from 2014 to 2017. Souths’ proudest moment in half-a-century - their victory in the 2014 grand final - memorialises their association with a company that, according to Bergin’s report, had ‘facilitated money laundering’, ‘disregarded the welfare of its China-based staff, putting them at risk of detention’, and built relationships with ‘junket operators who had links to Triads and other organised crime groups’, the headline acts on a long list of misdemeanours.
Most of rugby league’s sponsors are good solid companies doing good solid things.
Yet Crown’s continued association with rugby league’s top clubs poses the question: who wouldn’t an NRL team take money from? Is it only those who, such as tobacco companies, the law prohibits?
The symbiosis of pro sports and sponsor companies is an odd one. Some companies and industries have used sports to burrow their way into the permanent subconscious.
Crown also adorned the jersey of Cooper Cronk’s Storm when they won the grand final in 2017.Credit:NRL Imagery
Cricket in a former era was inseparable from Benson & Hedges, as was league from Winfield. Fortunately for them, they avoided liability for the medical bills. Other football club sponsorships evoke pleasant nostalgia: the BHP Illawarra Steelers, the Henny Penny Newcastle Knights, the Canberra Milk Raiders, the City Ford Roosters, the Victa Wests Magpies, and the Dahdah Penrith Panthers bring back all sorts of memories. The James Hardie Parramatta Eels of the 1980s show the cleansing power of sports: the names Mick Cronin, Ray Price, Eric Grothe, Brett Kenny and Peter Sterling almost wipe away thoughts of asbestosis and pleural mesothelioma. Celebrated blunders of sponsorship, such as the Manly mid-1990s Pepsi jersey, were aesthetic rather than moral offences.
‘Why does the relationship still appear to be a master-servant one, where it is only for the sponsor to hire and fire the sport?’
But the connection between the NRL’s finest and an organisation with Mafia-grade ethics requires more questions. Are football clubs so addicted to revenue growth that they cannot exist without asking due diligence of the names they invite onto their jerseys?
League used to moan that it would die without the support of its Winnie Blue gaspers, but it turned out that smoking killed. Sports survived their nicotine withdrawals. The modern revenue model depends far more on broadcast than sponsorship, which is important for growth but not essential for survival.
So why does the relationship still appear to be a master-servant one, where it is only for the sponsor to hire and fire the sport, and for the sport to accept whatever it can grab?
Sponsor influence over the decisions of professional sports is an accepted fact. When the Israel Folau case reared its ugly head again, the homophobic footballer’s comeback attempt was partly curtailed by worried sponsors. The de Belin case highlighted, as Mr Campbell pointed out, what a one-way dialogue exists between sponsors and sports. Sponsors run a mile from bad eggs; when it’s the sponsor who is the bad egg, the sport seldom seems to know what to do.
When it comes to Crown Resorts, the odour only gets worse. Crown’s association with the Rabbitohs makes much of the casino’s charity work. Announcing the renewal of their sponsorship a year ago, Crown’s chief operating officer, Peter Crinis, said, ‘A stronger relationship between our two organisations makes sense. We already have a well-established Indigenous Employment Program. In partnering with the Rabbitohs we can make meaningful impact and help improve employment pathways for Indigenous communities.’
Crown was not only involved in laundering money. Through Souths, it was laundering its name. Souths had spent a century building a genuine partnership with its Indigenous community. Its work with the community, much of it out of the public eye, has set a standard for Indigenous engagement and is something of which the club and the league can be proud. But here was the casino pushing into Sydney and leveraging the good name of this rugby league club to polish its own credentials. Souths need to ask the question: Isn’t its name too good to be dragged down by Crown? And if it’s not, and its jersey is on sale to the highest bidder regardless of reputation, what will it not sell?
You can buy a replica Souths 2014 grand final jersey on eBay for $123. You can buy a signed one for $1311. The memory of that night is now blackened by the logo obscuring the club’s colours. What is an association with criminals and bloodsuckers worth? And what does it really, really cost?