FC: How Sportswashing is Backfiring

Fast Company headline: Saudi-backed LIV Golf shows how ‘sportswashing’ can backfire

Sub-headline: Countries like China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia have tried to improve their image with sports. But it can have the opposite effect.


LIV Golf wants to be a game changer.

The new tour, backed by the government of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, has been making a lot of noise lately, trying to establish itself as a rival to the famous PGA Tour, and a familiar brand to golf fans and the public at large. And that’s happening —but not quite in the way LIV Golf organizers had in mind.

For starters, pretty much all press coverage of the upstart tour and its attempt to challenge the PGA has cited Saudi Arabia’s troubling human rights record and links to 9/11, as well as the assassination of U.S.-based journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

This, of course, is just the sort of subject that LIV was dreamed up to avoid; it was meant to emphasize Saudi Arabia as a sponsor of world-class athletes and a home of innovation, not as a sometimes-brutal regime. In other words, it’s an example of what some have dubbed “sportswashing,” a trendy term for controversial governments using involvement in sports and tournaments to burnish their national brands on the international stage. Think Russia or China hosting lavish Olympic Games, or Qatar’s upcoming role as the setting for the World Cup.

But LIV is, so far, offering a running example of how sportswashing is not only questionable, but also it may not even work. Indeed, LIV’s actual launch is so far having the opposite of the presumably intended effect. The tour has eight events in its first year, four in the United States. (Two of which are at Trump properties.) The first U.S. event got underway this week at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, about 20 miles northwest of Portland, Oregon. Local politicians and officials, including Senator Ron Wyden, have openly objected to the proceedings, once again forcing LIV players to defend their involvement with the enterprise. The group 9/11 Justice, made up of individuals who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks, has also called out LIV golfers for accepting “blood money.”

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Sportswashing is a new term for me!

Former RB and BL Home Fool, Supernova Portfolio Contributor & Maintenance Fool
He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.

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