I pledge my allegiance to [insert country’s brand name here]
Think you’ll be sitting down to watch the Lions play Australia this month? Think again
Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
If you go on to the IRFU’s website and look up the British & Irish Lions’ fixtures in coming weeks and the Ireland team’s games in November, you’ll get a little surprise. Punctuating the Lions’ midweek games, and sandwiched between Ireland’s matches against Samoa and New Zealand, is a national team that no longer wears its name with pride. It adopts it as a contractual obligation. For the Lions are not playing Australia this month. Ireland are not playing Australia in November. They are playing Qantas Wallabies. Alert the United Nations.
The official Irish rugby website calls them the Qantas Wallabies. The official Australian rugby website calls them that. The official utterances from the camp formerly known as Australia will be expected to call the team that. Because in global sport the Australians have become leaders in one particular field: giving their country to the highest bidder.
The airline became the team’s “official naming partner” in 2004. Adding itself to the team’s famous nickname, adopted almost a century before, the brand took that previously warm-blooded moniker and pumped it cold with commerce.
It is part of a range of corporate-tinged titles for Australian national teams, in which brands affix their steel claws to the much-loved fuzziness of a nickname.
Australia’s national teams across all sports have raided the national wildlife register. Its water-polo team did well with the Sharks. Its tennis team gloried in a certain stereotype by going for Cockatoos. But replacing the country’s name with a cutesy invention is only a marketing pitch away from letting someone pay for the privilege of adding their brand to the one concocted by the sports team in question.
It does not make it an inevitability. The New Zealand shirt says only “All Blacks” beneath a silver fern, but an entire rugby player’s chest remains between that and the Adidas logo on the other breast.
Australia, however, has ended up with national teams such as the Qantas Socceroos and the VB Kangaroos. The latter, its rugby-league team, is named after a lager. Dropping your country’s name in preference for the name of a beer seems ridiculous until you remember that, thanks to rugby, the brand recognition of Heineken among 10- to 12-year-olds is freakishly high.
Sport has come to inhabit dual platforms, in which it can be raw, unpredictable and emotionally pure while simultaneously compromised and choreographed. The supporters have been squeezed tighter and tighter in the crush between, where they are lined up and then both assisted and assaulted by the relentless marketing at big events.
So there are the commercials flashing across the screen midgame, and their eardrum-bursting clatter before and after games. There are live-action hoardings through which bookies inform the crowd, the viewers at home and the players on the pitch just how long the odds are on their team coming back from two goals down.
There are man-of-the- match awards for every half-baked friendly, presented by a grinning sponsor. There are logos on the fronts of jerseys, the backs of jerseys, the sleeves, the arses of the shorts, so that rugby players, in particular, resemble more and more the once uniquely logo-splattered racing suits of Formula 1 drivers.
There are the naming rights for stadiums. There are the logos painted on the centre of the pitch; the way a player scores by diving on to a bank’s grass-smothering advert. After which the fans can hold up the sponsored “TRY” placards when a camera is pointing at them.
There are the sponsors’ names on competitions, with the Heineken Cup perhaps the most ruthlessly effective of all deals, muting all mention of the rugby or the scope and nature of the tournament. Every mention of it is worth money: every newspaper report; every radio bulletin. Every time one kid talks to another kid about the match he ticks the box beside his name in a file that a marketing executive would never admit to making.
And the renaming of teams. Where should the line be? Or is the question whether there should be a line at all any more? Why should the geographical base of, say, New York Red Bulls make that less palatable a name than that of the rootless, globetrotting Formula 1 team named after the same brand? If a national team acts as no less of a brand than a privately owned team, why shouldn’t they sell themselves accordingly?
Australia’s rugby team, and its other national teams, have perhaps only sloughed away the last pretence that it is otherwise. That doesn’t make it any more digestible.
Now, please stand for the national anthems.
“In joyful strains then let us sing / Advance Qantas Wallabyland fair!”