Burning fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil – is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather and putting sportspeople and spectators at risk. 

That’s the simple reason why it’s a bad idea for sporting clubs and organisations to take sponsorship money from fossil fuel corporations. 

In recent years tournaments have been cancelled, delayed or cut short because of toxic bushfire smoke, extreme heat and massive flooding. 

Sport is healthy. Fossil fuels are not. 

Giant fossil fuel polluters like Woodside and Santos want their logos on sporting uniforms to clean up their brands by associating with teams that people feel intense loyalty to and connection with. 

But the truth is sports that accept sponsorship from fossil fuel corporations are endorsing a polluting and harmful product.

It’s greenwashing plain and simple. 

New research by Swinburne University’s Sport Innovation Research Group quantifies for the first time the number of partnerships between sports and coal, gas and oil brands – and puts a dollar value on those sponsorships.

It shows Aussie rules football is the code with the most fossil fuel connections. The AFL has the most partnerships (19) with coal, gas and oil, followed by netball (9), rugby league and union (8 each) and cricket (7). 

The AFLW competition, Fremantle, West Coast Eagles, Port Adelaide, Adelaide, Essendon, Carlton, Geelong and Hawthorn football clubs are all sponsored by fossil fuel corporations.

Fremantle is probably the most prominent example. The main jumper sponsor for Freo’s men’s and women’s teams is Woodside Energy, one of Australia’s biggest polluters. 

If Woodside’s massive Scarborough and Pluto Gas Project goes ahead as planned it’ll produce 1.37 billion tonnes of climate pollution when the gas is extracted and then burnt. 

It doesn’t matter where Woodside’s gas is burnt, it’ll contribute to destroying natural wonders like the Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo Reef. It’ll help make heatwaves and bushfires in Australia more intense and dangerous.

Fremantle Football Club has a new sustainability plan. It says the club will work to reduce its carbon footprint at its headquarters. That’s a good thing. But Woodside will undo this good work in the blink of an eye.

Fremantle Football Club has a new sustainability plan. It says the club will work to reduce its carbon footprint at its headquarters. That’s a good thing. But Woodside will undo this good work in the blink of an eye.

The University of New South Wales calculated that if every AFL stadium and HQ was powered by solar energy, it would save about 218,000 tonnes of climate pollution. 

In just two days Woodside’s Scarborough and Pluto Project would wipe out all those pollution savings.

Growing numbers of sports fans and players want sports to be fossil free and Australia to be powered with renewable energy. A recent survey of 55,000 Sydney Swans supporters found 46% nominated climate change as the social issue they cared most about. 

Former Collingwood FC player Jordan Roughhead, part of the newly founded AFL Players for Climate Action, said earlier this year: “I think climate is something we all need to prioritise in terms of the sustainability of our game, as much as life in general.” 

Three million Australians have already installed solar powered energy systems on their homes and businesses. These people watch and play sport. Many voted for federal election candidates with strong climate action policies. They lead and volunteer at community clubs. They’ll help change the game for the better.

Some AFL clubs are leaning into the challenge. Richmond FC have recognised the power of their roar. Their sustainability plan commits to reducing their carbon footprint – and also to being a champion for action beyond Punt Road.

It remains to be seen if the AFL, chaired by Woodside’s Richard Goyder, will provide the leadership fans and players are increasingly demanding.

The good news is the amount of money fossil fuel corporations put into Australian sport is relatively small. The experts at Swinburne estimate the total value of sponsorship at between $14 million and $18 million per year. That’s a problem of a solvable size. 

When tobacco was kicked out of sport, governments provided alternative funding while sports detoxed. The same could be done with fossil fuel sponsorship. The federal government could save $4 billion annually by phasing out the subsidies given to mining companies for their diesel fuel. 

Some of these savings could be redirected to get sponsorship from Woodside, Santos and other polluters out of Australian sport. 

The federal parliament could get the ball rolling by initiating an inquiry into the damage fossil fuel sponsorship and advertising does, how it could be regulated and what revenue alternatives are available for clubs and sporting organisations.

Clubs, athletes, communities and corporations will see other ideas and options for creating fossil fuel free sports. That’ll be exciting to be part of and it’ll make Australian sport stronger.

Paul Sinclair is the Australian Conservation Foundation’s campaigns director

Read Out of bounds: Coal, gas and oil sponsorship of Australian sports

Header pic by Yu-Jheng Fang

This piece was published by the Canberra Times and other Australian Community Media outlets.

Paul Sinclair

Campaigns Director at the Australian Conservation Foundation.