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The business of football
The business of football

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2.3 Sportswashing: cleansing a reputation through sport

Sportswashing is a term used to describe the process whereby an individual, company, group or government use sport to improve a poor reputation or suppress awareness of questionable behaviours. The takeover of Newcastle United football club by the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund (PIF), a part of the government of Saudi Arabia, has been criticised for being a clear attempt to sportswash the country’s human rights abuses.

A photograph of a football ground.
Figure 8 St James Park, the home of Newcastle United FC.

The 2021 takeover of Newcastle United is one of many examples of purported sportswashing in football, and the trend is increasing. But there are further reasons for organisations and governments like Saudi Arabia to make investments into football clubs. Like many countries on the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia has accumulated a vast wealth through the exploitation of its oil reserves. Now it is using this wealth to invest in its economy and make it less dependent on oil revenues. Football not only has reputational value but, at the highest level, it is an increasingly good financial investment as well.

Activity 6 Should football reject the petro-money?

In Week 1 you learned about the various stakeholders in football. Read this article from The Guardian newspaper and identify the key stakeholders and what their interests are in the takeover of Newcastle United: Saudi takeover of Newcastle leaves human rights to fog on the Tyne [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

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The supporters of Newcastle United welcomed the takeover of the club by the Saudi Arabia PIF. From the fans’ perspective the promised investment into the club might enable it to compete successfully at the very top of the Premier League. From the UK government perspective investment into Newcastle and the wider region may have a positive economic benefit, while for the Premier League the takeover symbolises the economic strength of the league and its attractiveness to global investors. For organisations like Amnesty International the deal is further evidence of how football is being used to deflect attention away from controversial issues.

As you learned in Week 1, the power and interests of each stakeholder can be mapped to develop a more detailed understanding of a complex business issue in football. The increasing number and diversity of stakeholders shows how the game has travelled a long way from when local entrepreneurs owned their local club and saw themselves as benefactors and custodians of the club for the community.

Through the preceding examples you have learned how football has become entangled within the power relationships of global politics and business. When we speak now of the business of football there are an increasing number of global, multi-billion pound business operations in action. The business of the top Premier League clubs have certainly become increasingly removed from the business operations of clubs like MK Dons and Chesterfield.