Tuesday 26 September 2017

Small measures in right direction can tackle drink crux

Rob Hartnett

There is no question that Ireland has a storied and often troubled relationship with alcohol. We are known throughout the world as being fond of a jar and at Páirc Uí Chaoimh this afternoon Guinness will be the principal brand on display when the Munster final throws in.

While last week's scenes in the Phoenix Park brought the danger of alcohol into sharp relief, many of those attending or playing sport this weekend will still round off the day with a drink. Wasn't it a central part of the high spirits enjoyed in Poland last month?

Even the ways we use a phrase like that suggest everything will be alright. It's the way it's always been.

The close link between alcohol and sport though is being questioned and challenged as never before, and the reasons for doing so are difficult to argue against. Earlier this year, a public health policy report called for the ending of alcohol companies' sponsorship of sport by 2016. The call did not find great favour among ministers or sports governing bodies but neither did it go away.

There are arguments that removing such a substantial cash source would damage participation and therefore health itself in ways that would counteract the benefits of less overt alcohol promotion.

There are also valid points about the codes of conduct that govern alcohol promotion being effective in terms of delivering a message on responsible drinking that might not otherwise reach those majority of young people engaged in sport.

The Irish Sports Council last week produced data showing that 91% of males aged 16-19 and 73% aged 20-24 play sport. The figures for girls are also climbing at 53% and 60%. Nobody can say with absolute certainty whether their participation is being encouraged by sports benefiting from alcohol funding or whether having been brought into sport they are then exposed to marketing of a product which may damage them.

It emerged last week that an Australian wine brand, Jacobs Creek, had increased its market share in the domestic market by six per cent and that its global sales by volume were up by 24%. It credited the rise in both figures to a successful positioning as a premium brand through association with the Australian Open tennis tournament and Wimbledon. Clearly a relationship with sport is working for this brand.

The loss of alcohol sponsorship would hurt in many ways. Gone would be the 'Giant will Rise' style of promotional messages that have served rugby and hurling in particular so well in terms of public consciousness. Or would the brands continue to use sport, just without being able to pay it?

Grassroots sport would also suffer in ways that are not so high-profile but are nevertheless potentially more damaging. The European Sponsorship Association says that 62% of alcohol sponsorship across Europe is at a local level and that the average contribution to events and clubs or programmes is €8,500. That is a far cry from the headline deals of marquee brands but its removal would hurt financially if there were to be no replacement.

There is no easy answer for government, society, sport or indeed alcohol. Or is there?

Looking back to Australia, the government there last month introduced a new initiative encouraging sport to 'Be the Influence'. Twelve sports including soccer, swimming, cycling, basketball, hockey and netball have agreed to end all existing and future relationships with alcohol companies. They will, as a result, share an Aus$25m (€20m) pot drawn from tax revenues on certain categories of alcoholic drinks.

None of the nation's major sporting organisations could be accommodated in a similar scheme because of the size of the 'displacement' money that would be needed, but each was urged to continue their programmes on responsibility with regard to alcohol.

Ben Buckey, CEO of the Australian Soccer Federation, said, "we have an absolute responsibility to make our community clubs and our professional clubs role models in society." That is a sentiment which many in Irish sport would no doubt echo, if they could afford to.

Could such a deal be introduced in Ireland? Yes, it could but it would need a recognition that small steps in the right direction are worth taking. Those who, with every good intention, would impose a blanket ban on alcohol promotion remain justified by the success of the bans on tobacco that were introduced here amid most claims that we would never accept it.

The pressure for greater restriction on the promotion of alcohol will get stronger so let's look for a solution that can have some benefit while recognising that for the vast majority a drink will be as much a part of the Irish sporting calendar as waterlogged pitches and ham sandwiches.

Rob Hartnett is the founder of Sport for Business, an independent service providing intelligence, insight and innovation at every level of the commercial relationship between sport and business in Ireland. www.sportforbusiness.com @sportforbusines

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