As Bahrain F1 Protests Continue, Tech Sponsors Go Along For The Ride

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As the newer crop of Internet and mobile technology companies gradually become the big industries of tomorrow, they are slowly entering the world of corporate sponsorship, previously the province of older giants like IBM and Cisco. It’s an area not for the faint-hearted. We’ve already seen IBM come under fire for backing the US Masters, run by a golf club that refused membership to IBM’s CEO based simply on her body parts, when people with other kinds of parts normally get let in. Interesting choice there guys.

Now we have a new issue altogether. The Formula One circus is staging a Grand Prix in Bahrain right now, a nation not normally associated with the most fabulous human rights record, exactly. Admittedly there are few such things as untarnished countries, but right now – as we you read this in fact – citizens in Bahrain are actively demonstrating for greater democratic reforms, along the lines of the Arab Spring movement, in the very city the F1 action is taking place.

Meanwhile, the cuddly image of a Rovio Angry Birds character is currently doing laps on the Bahrain circuit and a major tech VC is sponsoring one of the teams.

Now, no-one is out to call anyone names here, but let’s review: when South Africa still touted Apartheid in the 1970s/80s sports people and sponsors were encouraged to avoid the country. But apparently it’s OK for companies associated with the tech industry to associate with a sporting event in Bahrain, even as the free press is banned from the country and activists are beaten on the street and tear gassed.

Finnish Formula 1 driver and (apparently) Angry Birds enthusiast Heikki Kovalainen recently agreed a sponsorship and co-branding deal with the gaming company (see images). Heikki and Rovio are also planning to sell related merchandise around the theme of racing.

All good clean fun – though the question remains, is Rovio happy with its cuddly birds being associated with an event that seems utterly tone deaf to the violent suppression of pro-democracy protests going on nearby?

We reached out to Rovio’s Peter Vesterbacka for comment and he responded thus:

Interesting.

Meanwhile, an unfortunate third party to be literally dragged along for the F1 ride is Mangrove Capital, long time backer of some home-run tech companies like Skype, Nimbuzz, Jamendo, Seatwave and others.

Mangrove’s green splash logo appears on the side of Renault’s F1 car, thus:

How, you ask? Well, Gerard Lopez, co-founder and managing partner of Mangrove Capital Partners, acquired a majority stake in the Renault F1 Team back in 2009 via his other company, Genii Capital, a Luxembourg-based investment firm. Indeed, he helped secure the team’s future as that year Renault was about to drop out of Formula 1 entirely after 35 years in the sport.

We haven’t had any official comment from Mangrove but privately we hear at least a few of the guys there are, how can we put this, pretty damn uncomfortable with the whole situation.

Perhaps it’s to be hoped that Rovio and Mangrove consider their continuing involvement in F1 quite carefully, given that organisation’s continuing disinterest in the plight of ordinary people in their host nation.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to pick on these guys – merely to point out that the ‘newer’ tech industry is now playing at the level where these kinds of conflicts are inevitably going to arise and where there needs to be plenty of thought about who you get into bed with when you sponsor something.

Is it too late for them to pull out their sponsorship? That’s up to them. But it would be an interesting question for Nelson Mandela, or perhaps Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, let’s ask!

Mr Lincoln, what do you think of slavery?

“It is was it is.”

Nelson Mandela was not available for comment.