Sunday 15 September 2019

Why restricting alcohol sponsorship in sport makes sense

Denis Hickie
Denis Hickie

Andy Warhol once observed that people like to believe time changes things – whereas in reality we have to make changes ourselves. It's short-sighted to wait for the passage of years to do the heavy lifting for us.

Overturning the status quo can be a slow process, especially if powerful vested interest groups oppose it. I'm thinking of alcohol's tie-in with sport here. While tobacco sponsorship is now regarded as harmful, alcohol sponsorship remains tolerated – partly because lobbyists employed by drinks companies are effective at persuading politicians.

To date, the alcohol giants have successfully resisted efforts to dislodge their product names from pole position at sporting fixtures. Such events offer influential stages, and companies are unwilling to relinquish them without a fight. Sponsorship, by the way, is soft advertising – nothing else.

Looked at objectively, it is strange that the hook-up between alcohol and sport should be so tight, because elite athletes tend to avoid intoxicating drinks altogether, or else consume them sparingly. But cash is a powerful inducement towards forming connections.

The Heineken Cup is one such ill-matched marriage. However, it is rare to encounter figures from the world of rugby questioning these sponsorship arrangements: they regard it as biting the hand that feeds them. Former rugby player Denis Hickie has recently stepped outside the herd, though – and the word 'former' is relevant in this context. Recently, he spoke before a cross-party Oireachtas committee in Leinster House to press for a drinks industry sponsorship ban in sport. Currently, such an injunction is being considered from 2020 onwards by a working group chaired by the Taoiseach's department. No doubt, drinks lobbyists are in overdrive – as is their right. Hickie is also campaigning on a particular platform, after all.

Alcohol representatives adopt a clever approach, highlighting the sector's value to the economy: the tax take, for example. They insist they make a cultural contribution to society through tourism and festival sponsorship. Certainly, the arts would struggle without their sponsorship.

More insidiously, drinks advocates question whether banning sports sponsorship would lead to any improvement in public health. Who takes up drinking, they shrug, because of some lettering on a player's jersey?

But sporting events are sponsored because they generate business. Big business. Sponsorship is about one goal and one goal only: selling. It helps to build brand awareness, get a product's name on people's lips and boost market share. All of which leads to sales.

So, if drinks companies are banned from sponsoring sport, who picks up the baton? Health insurance companies would be a good fit. But whether they have sums of money to match the drinks behemoths is another matter.

Finding substitute sponsors may be challenging but it is not impossible. When the tobacco industry was edged out of snooker, horse racing, Formula One and other sports, alternative sponsors emerged. Alcohol could be replaced, too, if the will was there.

Yet alcohol and sports sponsorship appear to be almost indivisible. It is a lucrative two-way street between sponsor and sporting organisation. But are fans left high and dry in the middle, squeezed between bundles of euro? The IRFU, the GAA and the FAI all oppose a proposed ban, incidentally.

Ireland is a nation synonymous with alcohol consumption: health experts say we have a tendency to binge drink, saving up our rations for a weekly blow-out. Sporting events can be an occasion for such benders. New figures published by the Health Research Board confirm our patterns are harmful, with almost one in 14 meeting the criteria for dependent drinking.

Arthur's Day, a marketing ploy by Diageo dressed up as a cultural contribution, aims to encourage people to raise a glass to the memory of the Guinness founder. Established as a faux holiday in 2009, it has already highlighted a range of social problems arising from alcohol promotion. The Royal College of Physicians Ireland has warned of a 30pc increase in ambulance callouts on Arthur's Day.

So, a link between drinks advertising and consumption can be traced. Excess consumption leads to health problems for individuals and lost productivity for employers. It is estimated that alcohol-related illness or injury costs the State some €3.7bn annually. In that context, any speed bumps on the road map towards phasing out alcohol sponsorship of sport by 2020 appear to be short-sighted.

Alcohol firms insist their branding at sporting events is aimed only at adults, but children regularly attend matches. They are not blind to the names of products on jerseys worn by their heroes.

Drinks firms all but threaten the end of civilisation as we know it if they lose the freedom to promote their products on the pitch. But tobacco branding is no longer a feature of sporting events, as it was once at the Embassy World Snooker Championships, or Formula One racing, previously associated with Camel and Marlboro cigarettes. And those sports continue to thrive. They have not withered on the vine.

Rugby remains popular in France, although the Heineken Cup is known as the H Cup there because of restrictions on alcohol sponsorship.

Meanwhile, Britain lags behind. The FA Cup was sponsored by Budweiser for three years, in a deal that expired this year, while Molson Coors sponsored the Carling Cup for 14 years until 2012. The bottom line is advertising methods have grown sophisticated, and sponsorship guarantees payback time. That's why the drinks industry is opposed to a clampdown. But I can think of 3.7 billion reasons why our lawmakers should pay no attention to represen-tatives of special interest groups. They need to listen to the medics instead.

Martina Devlin

Irish Independent

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