Crown case begs question of just what sponsors NRL clubs would refuse

Crown case begs question of just what sponsors NRL clubs would refuse

Malcolm Knox

Malcolm Knox

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.

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.

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?


It’s a fair question.


What a load of crap! A sponsor is a sponsor and does the NRL now need to remove all those grand finals that were cloaked in Winfield branding and paraphernalia, after all, cigarettes are the evil vice of the past century that has killed millions and only until recently were forced to advertise their sins on their package.


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.

Can someone inform me of what they’ve been found guilty of pls?

The game has changed for the worse ever since the gambling companies officially came into the game imo.

This issue is bigger than the individual clubs though. This is an issue that teh NRL has to tackle if it wants to be fair dinkum


I’ll await the article on Canterbury’s new sponsor Laundy Hotels with baited breath.
One of those hotels even has cheeseburgers on the menu & we all know what they can do to ones health. :hamburger:


No one is trying to cancel the NRL, Pablo. A journalist is just trying to make a point about a company that has been hugely discredited who is a major sponsor of ours, and whose owner is a co-owner of our fine club.
Our club should be very wise in this difficult time.


This will blow over like all other witch-hunts. I remember the royal commission into Kerry Packer (James’ father) referring to him as the “Goanna” a drug kingpin, that smell quickly dissipated for Kerry as this bad smell will for James.

It is well known in every western country that Casinos are a haven for money laundering and other illegal activities, but most governments turn a blind eye to these activities because of the revenues created through taxes and tourism benefits.

Why do you think the Federal and State government have banned vaping? Vaping is far less dangerous than cigarettes, it doesn’t have the tar and toxins that is killing thousand of Australians every year.

However the Government earns a staggering $17.4 billion from tobacco importation and will not risk this revenue by allowing legal vaping as its much harder to police and tax. It’s double standards and the Government has hidden agendas and will only react after media concentrated exposure.


Is he suggesting that Packer should not be allowed to have a 37.5% ownership stake?

I don’t think that’s the point of the article - it’s saying that products that were once socially acceptable enough to be appropriate sponsors (like tobacco) are no longer so, and that perhaps that time is coming is gambling companies also. Just because Crown sponsor our club doesn’t mean they can’t be questioned, or that our club can’t be criticised for openly endorsing Crown. It’s certainly a reasonable thing to debate.


Sponsorship is smart advertising for business. Having your logo/name on a successful sporting teams jersey is permanent advertising. Until a organisation/product becomes illegal, we will see them as sponsors. If we start on a moral campaign, then how many companies/products will be scrutinized? Dig deep enough and you find something to discredit most sponsors. I think most people have there own ethical standards and will make choices that suit themselves on products or businesses.


Yes that’s true as far as it goes. But of course sporting clubs have to operate in a society which is full of moral choices, and sooner or later they have to decide what side they are on. Tobacco is still legal too (though of course illegal to advertise), but no club would seriously suggest they adopt Winfield as a sponsor these days (even if they could). I get the slippery slope argument, and you are correct to note that pretty much any private organisation probably has a dark moral underbelly. But clubs will be led by where the community goes, and if enough people start to think that gambling is something that shouldn’t be promoted, then it will be untenable to keep Crown on as a jersey sponsor.


The article raises a fair point but by definition sponsors are the ones handing out the money so the relationship will never change no matter how dodgey the company is. Speaking of which, I’m glad the article didn’t go a little further back and talk about Firepower.

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I have NO problem of Crown being one of our sponsors. They may have pushed the limits to maximise profits, and this report suggests they crossed the line. It’s up to the government to sort it out .
I’ve stayed at Crown Casino in Melbourne and loved it. I’m looking forward to Crown Barangaroo opening, and it will.
In the meantime, Crown needs good publicity and advertising, and its prudent for Souths to squeeze them for more sponsorship money . Having Crown’s compromised name on our great jersey, surely is worth double.
I love the mighty South Sydney jersey, with or without Crown on it .


The greatest killer in the Western World is heart disease and the obesity that can lead to it,more children in our country are way over weight than ever before.
Let’s say good bye to all the fast food chains and the corner fish and chips shops,no more advertising these businesses.
But of course this will never happen…get my drift!


Personally, I’m pretty ambivalent about Crown’s jersey sponsorship, and in general I see the sponsors as a necessary evil rather than anything to get worked up about. But this article may yet prove to be a straw in the wind, and if Crown’s travails start to prove toxic, it would be prudent for the club to start to distance themselves. Of course, our part-owner also owns Crown, so any move against Crown by the club is probably still a way off yet.


What gambling establishment anywhere in the world isn’t used for money laundering is the best question.

Is the Unibet that sponsors the chooks linked with overseas Unibet?


I wouldn’t be surprised if the Packers old Foe In Murdoch isn’t pumping this somewhere in the mix either.

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Just something else to cancel because it offends someone.