British Cycling’s shell game


British Cycling and Shell’s announcement of their eight year sponsorship hasn’t landed well. 

According to the PR, British Cycling and Shell will share a commitment to ‘supporting Great Britain’s cyclists and para-cyclists through the sharing of world-class innovation and expertise; accelerating British Cycling’s path to net zero; and helping more – and wider groups of – people to ride, including ways to make cycling more accessible for disabled people, a specific, though not disclosed investment from Shell UK to support a new programme – to be named Limitless.’

It’s an interesting litmus test for a reaction to fossil fuel sponsors – a full frontal association with a popular sport that’s associated with sustainability, by a major petrochemical brand which already has a negative sponsorship baggage.

Those in favour

The clear argument in favour is that British Cycling lost nearly £11M funding moving from 2020 to 2021 with consequent reductions in expenditure spread across its operations, with heaviest reductions in major events. A sizeable budgetary hole but one that will be largely redressed at least by increases in grant funding, membership and event revenues in 2023. It also faces revenue loss with the departure of principle sponsor HSBC, which came to an end this year. 

The sponsorship also supports British Cycling’s ambition to embed disability and parasport into communities. This will fulfil a commitment in British Cycling’s its strategy to 2024, ‘Lead our sport. Inspire our communities’. Under the banner of Grow Communities, British Cycling sets a focus beyond elite sport to cycling ‘as a force for individual and societal good’.

According to British Cycling and Shell, ‘The ambition is to embed disability and para sport into the heart of communities and develop a clear pathway from local to elite performance, with the funding helping to create inclusive and accessible environments for disabled riders across British Cycling’s 2,000 registered clubs. 

Those against

The partnership between British Cycling and Shell has been widely attacked, as you’d expect, by environmental organisations, from Greenpeace to Friends of the Earth, and the story has made news around the world.

But the reaction from British Cycling’s members has been particularly fierce. British Cycling has 160K members so the 600 or so who’ve chosen to post on their Facebook page are a tiny percentage – but comments are anguished and heartfelt.

There’s a range of arguments at play: some informed, some not. But many are proud of the intrinsically sustainable nature of cycling, shocked that Shell should be credited with ‘accelerating British Cycling’s journey to net zero’ and appalled at a decision which feels so at odds with their personal values – and the assumed values of the organisation.

The personal compromises we and the cycling community all make with climate action – driving cars, buying products derived from petrochemicals, travelling to events etc – don’t stifle the desire to call out an action which feels so wrong.

One member sums it up with his post on British Cycling’s Facebook page : ‘It appears I cancelled my membership, for other reasons, just in time. The continuing frustrating necessity of fossil fuels does not make it any less appalling & shameful to permit yourselves to be complicit with this greenwashing. I don’t think this is even a case of all of us being some kind of unreasonable extreme eco warriors with no sense of pragmatism, it’s just that this is so obviously & utterly tone deaf that it sounds like a decision made by Liz Truss.’

Values at play

Sport and sponsorship like to talk about values and the power of association, and we know there’s often much puffery in these claims. But here’s what appears to be a clear example of values at play. They do exist and they are powerful – they just aren’t as easily managed as we often make out; and, unless the rightsholder’s brand analysis is exemplary, they aren’t always the values presented in the sales deck. Here’s a couple of threads on that point, here and here.

There’s a strong sense here that the sponsorship is contrary to the perceived values of the organisation. As Cycling Tips calls out British Cycling has encouraged perception of the organisation as environmentally friendly. In August 2021 it reminded people it was “proud to join the British Association for Sustainable Sport, joining forces with like-minded sporting organisations passionate about having a positive environmental impact through sport”. In Jan and Feb of ths year, its ‘Let’s Ride Through Winter‘ campaign also pledged to plant a tree for every person who completed a cycling challenge. Its campaigning pages look focused on growing infrastructure to encourage cycling mobility. ‘Become a member!’

The kind of reactions expressed on British Cycling’s Facebook betray a real rupture in relations. They’re the sort of reactions normally reserved for comments about the Glazers. An acute sense of personal affront – signs of a grievance that will not just fade away. In my experience, British Cycling has always struggled to unite a very diverse membership, segmented – sometimes passionately – by discipline and by motivation. Shell’s sponsorship has clearly united a sub-group. The question is, how large is that sub-group?

British Cycling’s strategic plan links performance to growth, leadership to inspiration – the accepted paradigm for growth in sport. If British Cycling’s success has been shown to be responsible for its membership increase over the last decade, then the choice to alienate a small percentage of its members in exchange for substantial membership growth would be a simple and defensible, if risky, choice. For 2020, revenue from membership subscriptions equalled its (hard hit) sponsorship revenue – quite a milestone on route to financial sustainability. 

And then there’s the argument about growth for growth’s sake. In the recent words of Patagonia Chair, Charles Conn: We have subsidized buoyant shareholder returns by fraying the fabric of our societies and using up the planet we live on. We all know this is happening.’ 

Should NGB’s share and act on those sentiments? Are they betraying their members by sacrificing growth? Is the wider world of consequence to an Sports Federation beyond the addressable market value?

The same strategic plan – Lead our Sport. Inspire our communities – talks of British Cycling’s commitment to ‘represent our communities by campaigning for their big issues’. 

We’re clearly in the familiar territory of moral relativism or moral equivalence : who’s to say what’s better, worse or more important? Is there really an argument that Shell is worse than HSBC or any major corporation? And if Shell’s investment will drive inclusivity and access, why should climate action be accorded higher priority? 

The thing is, the moral relativism stance is about as trite and helpful as the binary, reductive damning of many corporate – or governmental – associations. The only constructive stance is to raise awareness and retain a perspective on the wider world. And not to be lulled by comfortable models or patterns.

Value shift

This membership rupture won’t bring British Cycling down. But it won’t go away.

British Cycling have – as many of its members state without emotion – misread the room. It will colour and blight conversations for many years to come. And it will demand the wholehearted complicity of every employee and major stakeholder in British Cycling, a highly corrosive pressure. There’s no space in a partnership between British Cycling and Shell for public reservations or doubt.

Our thesis is simple : the environmental crisis, if we believe it’s a product of man-made global warming, will soon transcend all other issues, barring war on your doorstep. And consumers will very soon consider the behaviour of offending brands personally. Issues stop being about principles the moment they become about practicalities. Unlike obesity, alcoholism or gambling addiction, climate change affects everyone, not just a vulnerable minority.

The likelihood is that the impact on British Cycling will ultimately be commercial as well.

Take HSBC as an example. Like nearly every major bank, they’re a major funder of oil and gas extraction, an inevitable consequence of the developmental path we’ve followed. Their website and sustainability plans however state a commitment to financing net zero. The wording is cautious, unambitious and commercially defensible : ‘The biggest impact we can make is by working with our customers to support their transition to lower carbon emissions’. We’ll follow our business customers, in other words.

HSBC have terminated their sponsorship with British Cycling – but had they not, the juxtaposition with Shell would make the task for their corporate brand and sustainability teams all the harder. For analysts, the sponsorship creates no connection between HSBC and Shell. But it raises questions, it attracts scrutiny, it invites linkage. Any brand struggling to make the best of its sustainability messaging will keep its distance from a sponsor like Shell. Sustainability and external affairs leads will get twitchy. Unless Shell move very far very fast, this is, to rephrase Crispin Odey, bad news that just keeps spinning.

This sponsorship has all the ingredients of an old Orange cinema ad. Anyone inside the industry will recognise the formula.

‘So we’ll partner with them to help them get more sustainable – yes, partnership sounds good. “British Cycling – and Shell.” Maybe change the promoter contracts to get the carbon liability off their books and chuck in a bit of carbon offset to make sure they’re net zero. But that’s not enough, it’s the 20’s, we need something around DEI. Access for disabled cyclists? Perfect, can’t touch this! Then … the bulk of the funding to make sure we top the medals again in 2024. They’ll love us. And fuck over Total on their home turf… someone turn off the pump pleaaaaase, I’m all over the forecourt.’