Professional sports organisations regularly promote and develop initiatives to support diversity, equity and inclusion.

While sport has the power to change attitudes by sparking conversations about political issues and social initiatives, sports organisations and teams face risks, as initiatives can backfire and spark unwanted controversies.

The NRL's Respect Round and Manly Warringah Sea Eagles' Pride Week jersey are just two recent examples of an inclusion attempt being disrupted by religious concerns from players and segments of wider society.

Seven Manly players declined to wear the club's pride jersey due to religious and personal beliefs.

Despite intending to bring people together, the initiatives created pockets of disharmony. This was amplified in the media and ultimately diverted from the original purpose of the campaign.

So, what can organisations and clubs do to bring more fans along for the ride when it comes to diversity and inclusion campaigns?

Why do leagues and clubs push diversity and inclusion?

In Australia, many sports, including cricket, rugby league and AFL, actively promote inclusivity.

Initiatives such as Cricket Australia's “Pride in Sport” and the NRL League Stars Inspire inclusion and diversity program spotlight diverse players and fans, emphasising the significance of developing an inclusive environment within sport at all levels.

Similar efforts occur in AFLW, Super Netball and the NBL.

However, some of these marketing strategies have sparked controversy.

One of the highest profile missteps was Manly's decision to wear a rainbow jersey to support marginalised groups for a single match against the Sydney Roosters in July 2022.

Seven players withdrew from the game for religious reasons, not wanting to appear in colours associated with the LGBTQI+ community, and due to a lack of prior consultation with the players.

Manly coach Des Hasler apologised for the poor handling of the initiative.

Yet, at the same time as this backlash, their pride jersey sold out.

The NRL's “Respect Round” campaign was also criticised that year for appearing more as a token gesture and a “box-ticking exercise” rather than a sincere endeavour to foster genuine inclusivity in sports, with some critics arguing the sport was not ready for a pride round.

Cricket Australia's decision not to use the phrase “Australia Day” during the Brisbane Test match that occurred on January 26 is another example where inclusivity attempts were criticised.

Trying to understand fans' attitudes

Our research across two studies of sports fans in Australia and the United States shows their reactions to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts can be complex, ranging from feeling disgusted to experiencing affection.

How these inclusion initiatives are marketed and communicated is critical when considering how fans will respond.

If leagues and teams are unclear and abstract, our research shows fans – particularly those who aren't as “hardcore” or attached to the team – show significantly higher levels of disgust and are more likely to abandon supporting the team.

In contrast, our research found more passionate fans weren't affected by abstract communication about their teams' initiatives. These fans have a longstanding, established bond with their club, and their engagement is focused primarily on strategies, tactics, players and the overarching history of the team, rather than select marketing initiatives.

Conversely, findings from our other research show using concrete, clear language explaining exactly why the campaign or initiative is being undertaken, and why fans should be a part of it as well, can lead to enhanced perceptions of the team and support for diversity and inclusion – particularly for casual followers with lower levels of team identity.

Why clear communication is crucial

When communicating inclusion initiatives, sports organisations need to be clear, concrete and justified in their reasons why fans should also be involved.

This is vital for the organisation or team to understand exactly what it wants from the campaign, and help stand firm if there is backlash. Performing a u-turn after criticism only reduces credibility.

Crucially, in a society in which there is often division from different political viewpoints, sports organisations must also be wary of “woke washing”, where superficial displays of social activism (seen by some as “wokeness”) are employed for marketing purposes, without a genuine commitment.

Bookmaker Paddy Power received flak for making a £10,000 (A$19,071) donation to LGBTQI+ causes each time Russia – with its anti-LGBTQI+ policies – scored at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Critics argued the promotion was planned to maximise betting profits rather than being values-driven.

Initiatives must have value-driven motives, where the principle of the campaign demonstrates a clear alignment with the values of the sporting organisation. Sincerity and transparency are critical in any type of cause-focused marketing campaigns.

Put simply, sports teams' diversity and inclusion initiatives need to make sense to fans, the players, and the club.

Beyond the context of professional sports, we contend this point of advice is relevant to any organisation wishing to support inclusion initiatives.The Conversation

Rory Mulcahy, Associate Professor of Marketing, University of the Sunshine Coast; David Fleischman, Senior Lecturer, Marketing, University of the Sunshine Coast; Dr Peter English, Senior Lecturer in Journalism, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Margarietha de Villiers Scheepers, Associate professor, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.