Rugby League Sex Scandals Concern Sponsors, Prime Minister Rudd
16 May, 2009
By Dan Baynes

May 16 (Bloomberg) -- The sex scandal that’s embroiled Australian rugby league is prompting sponsors including Coca- Cola Amatil Ltd. to revise their contracts and may deter other companies from backing the nation’s No. 2 winter sport.

Matthew Johns, a former Australia international, lost his job as a Channel Nine television presenter three days ago over his involvement in a group sex incident in 2002 that was detailed in a May 11 documentary.

The scandal prompted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to call for sports organizations to foster greater respect for women, less than four months after Australia’s major sports agreed to target binge drinking. Sponsors are concerned their image may be tarnished by players’ off-field behavior.

“We want to protect our brand and our name,” said Sally Loane, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola Amatil, Australia’s largest soft-drink maker, which sponsors rugby league clubs. “In respect of controversial behavior, we’ll be tightening up those agreements. We don’t want our sponsorship diminished and we certainly don’t want adverse publicity against us as sponsors.”

The show, screened by the Australian Broadcasting Corp., centered on a New Zealand woman saying she was traumatized as a 19-year-old by group sex involving rugby players in Christchurch seven years ago. Johns, 37, told Channel Nine three days ago the woman was a “willing participant” and apologized to her for any “trauma and embarrassment.” He wasn’t charged by police.


David Gallop, the National Rugby League’s chief executive officer, also apologized to women featured in the “Four Corners” program and said much of the content was “fundamentally indefensible.” Players who failed to meet standards of behavior and respect toward women would be weeded out, he said.

“We certainly need to speak to sponsors,” Gallop added at a news conference on May 12. “Our clubs and our players are acutely aware that this kind of issue damages those commercial relationships.”

Telstra Corp., Australia’s largest phone company, expressed concern directly to the league, a person familiar with the situation said. Telstra signed a six-year deal in 2007 worth A$90 million ($68 million), the Australian Financial Review reported. Telstra spokesman Andrew Maiden declined to comment.

Coca-Cola Co., the world’s largest soft-drink maker, has a contract with the league that expires this year.

“We are currently investigating our role for 2010 but have not made any firm decisions,” said Kelly Brooks, a spokesman for Coca-Cola South Pacific Pty, its Australian marketing arm.

In 2004, the Sydney-based NRL introduced programs at clubs to educate athletes on attitudes toward women and this year began promoting sexual ethics to youth players.


The league, in a statement about cracking down on inappropriate behavior toward women, listed three player suspensions and three teams being fined “six figures” over the past five years, as well as “a number of players” getting suspended in 2009.

Catharine Lumby, a University of New South Wales professor who has advised the NRL on gender issues and player behavior since 2004, said cultural change was a “long-haul process.”

“Every time there’s an adverse incident I understand why people think nothing’s changed, but you can’t measure cultural change and progress by individual incidents,” Lumby said in an interview. “You’ll never get everybody on board, but I’m confident that we’re moving in the right direction.”

Some sponsors agree. Foster’s Group Ltd., the country’s biggest beer and winemaker, backs the league and Kangaroos national team through its Victoria Bitter brand and is a “long- term committed NRL sponsor,” spokesman Troy Hey said.

“We support the measures announced by David Gallop and the NRL,” Hey said in an interview.

‘Proper Respect’

The Australian Senate two days ago passed a motion pressing the government to seek a multi-sports code of conduct to promote better attitudes to women. In January, rugby league signed up with five sports to a code of conduct covering alcohol abuse.

“It’s very important for sporting organizations across the country to show leadership in demonstrating proper respect toward women,” Rudd told reporters two days ago.

Analysts say companies are already putting extra scrutiny on marketing budgets because of the recession and will be less inclined to back rugby league -- a winter sport second only to Australian Rules football in attendances and TV audiences.

“There are sponsors out there right now whom wouldn’t touch a rugby league property with a 10-foot pole,” said Kim Skildum- Reid of Sydney-based Power Sponsorship. “Sponsors are being much more shrewd about where they’re spending their money. They are holding their partners extremely accountable.”


The league must “prove they are eradicating these issues,” added Lynne Anderson, managing director of Repucom International Australia & New Zealand, which advises sponsors. “They are clearly not acceptable or palatable to sponsors.”

Johns, who fronted a television campaign promoting this year’s NRL, left his Channel Nine role by mutual agreement because the incident put the former player in an “untenable position,” Nine Chief Executive David Gyngell said in a May 13 statement. Johns was not available for an interview, his manager John Fordham said in an e-mail.

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