Don Crowley won the Wisden Writing Competition in 2022. His award-winning piece originally appeared in the 2023 edition of Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack.
For years, there’s been a cruel irony at the MCG: for all the KFC advertising on the boundaries, sight-screens and banner boards, there’s no KFC outlet at the ground. It’s the type of torture Tantalus endured – except the tree we can’t touch dangles Wicked Wings, and the pool we can’t drink is Pepsi Max.
The advertising at last year’s T20 World Cup was equally tantalising. For all the colourful signs heralding Aramco, there were no drilling rigs for purchase, no barrels of crude oil on tap. But I suppose that wasn’t the point. Gone are the days when sport ads target actual consumers, flogging products we can buy at a shop. Now it’s an exercise in sportswashing, using the exposure of a major sporting event to target abstract concepts such as legitimacy, authenticity and trust.
When you arrived at the perimeter of the stadium during the World Cup, the dismembered voice on the PA said over and over: “Welcome to the MCG, the people’s ground.” Every ground is a people’s ground, given it is people who watch sport. But can a ground drowned in ads for the Saudi government’s oil company really claim to be in touch with the needs of the everyday sports fan, the average punter, the “people”?
This isn’t to single out the MCG: Aramco are an ICC sponsor, and all host venues displayed the name. But it is a symbol of the growing corporate capture of cricket. Much has been made of sportswashing in the Saudi-backed LIV golf tour, and at football’s World Cup in Qatar, but cricket is as much on the hook. Aramco, also an IPL sponsor, are one of the world’s largest corporate greenhouse-gas emitters. Their owners, say Amnesty International, “have an appalling human rights record”, including the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Coverage of Australian cricket is also plastered with alcohol and gambling ads: Bundaberg, 4Pines, and Bet365 are all commercial partners of the national board. Alinta Energy’s contract as principal partner is coming to an end in June, but for years Australian Test shirts have sported the logo of an energy provider whose holding company are one of the biggest carbon emitters in the country. Australia captain Pat Cummins refused to appear in Alinta ads during the 2022/23 season, because it conflicted with his activism on climate change. Cummins is the founder of Cricket for Climate, which seeks to provide clubs with solar panels in order to reduce their carbon emissions.
Hopefully, this is the way of the future, and more players, fans and administrators will have the courage to call out cricket’s unethical sponsorship deals. Maybe then, that MCG welcome message will prompt more than just an eye roll. A people’s ground that serves people, not powerful sponsors. The prospect is tantalising.
Dan Crowley is a comedian and classics student from Melbourne. He blogs at dancrowley.substack.com. His batting average is exactly three.
Wisden received 117 entries for its 11th writing competition, from as far afield as Australia, Canada, Germany, Greece, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and the USA. Every entry was read by the editorial team.