Good sports? - Alcohol advertising and sponsorship in sport

Andrew Misell | June 2021 | 8 minutes

Is it finally time to cut the ties between alcohol companies and some of our favourite sports?

Remember back to lockdown times during the Covid-19 pandemic when sport just wasn’t the same? It’s supposed to be noisy and crowded and…fun. Remember how it was all a bit too quiet? Footballers had no one in the stands to entertain (or enrage) with their post-goal celebrations. Jockeys raced past the finishing post accompanied only by the dull thud of hooves on turf. Cricketers hit sixes into the top row with no eager spectators trying to catch them.

But even if crowds were a bit thin on the ground, one thing that didn’t disappear from sporting events during this time was alcohol. There may have been no one pitch-side or track-side supping pints or quaffing rosé, but there were still plenty of punters to advertise to at home on the sofa; and plenty of digital channels for teams to plug their drinks partnerships on. Nowhere was this more striking than in the world of football.

"Even if crowds have been a bit thin on the ground, one thing that didn’t disappear from sporting events was alcohol."

To be fair, the days of alcohol adverts boldly emblazoned across players’ shirts seem to have passed, for now. There was a time when Changy the Elephant – a walking marketing campaign for Chang Lager – was regularly to be found welcoming children to Everton’s Goodison Park. These days, you’re more likely to see a gambling advert on a footballer’s chest. But the drinks industry’s role in the beautiful game hasn’t diminished. If anything, it’s more deeply embedded. The Premier League has an official beer. Not to be outdone, Arsenal have three: one in the UK, one in Germany, and one in Rwanda. If beer’s not your thing, Manchester United have an official wine and an official whisky. “What’s the problem?” you may ask. Alcohol’s a legal product. Sports need income to survive. Alcohol companies provide it. There are two main answers to that question – and both of them are questions.

Firstly, what does alcohol sponsorship say about sport? The clear message from the drinks industry is that sport and alcohol are natural buddies and should hang out together…a lot. Take this statement from Guinness, sponsors of rugby’s Six Nations competition: “A pint of Guinness with your friends is the perfect accompaniment to a game of rugby and has been for a long time...We are encouraging fans, whoever their team is, and wherever they watch the rugby, to experience it together over a pint of the black stuff.” Or this one from Budweiser: “Budweiser is making every fan’s game-viewing experience complete”. The implication in both cases is that without alcohol your sporting experience is incomplete.

And secondly, we need to ask who makes up the sporting audience: who is seeing and hearing this message that alcohol is part-and-parcel of sport? Sports spectators are mostly adults but there is also a long tradition of people introducing their children to their favourite game. Most professional football clubs set aside a family area in the stands and offer junior membership. They’re expecting kids in the crowd. Does that matter? Probably, yes, given that a growing body of research indicates a clear association between exposure to alcohol marketing, and drinking behaviours and attitudes to alcohol. Indeed, it has been argued that the future profitability of the alcohol industry logically requires the continual recruitment of a new generation of young drinkers, and so alcohol marketing – even though it can’t legally target under-18s – needs to grab future drinkers’ attention.

"We need to ask who makes up the sporting audience: who is seeing and hearing this message that alcohol is part-and-parcel of sport?"

So, that’s the dilemma we face. But, given how much alcohol sponsorship is sloshing around in the world of sport, is that likely to change? At this point, it’s worth remembering that there was a time when a tobacco sponsorship of sport was normal. That all came to an end in 2005 and is now considered rather bizarre. As one young focus-group participant told us in 2011, “Nobody wants them. Nobody wants to be sponsored by smoking.” Often, tobacco sponsorship has been replaced with some quite unexpected partnerships: in cricket, what was the Benson & Hedges Cup is now the Royal London Cup.

There have also been some notable recent shifts away from alcohol brands in sport. The FA Cup – once the “FA Cup with Budweiser” – is currently sponsored by the Emirates airline. After the Cheltenham Gold Cup was dropped by Magners Cider in 2020, it partnered up with the charity WellChild. Clearly, there’s no perfect solution. Some people would argue that airlines like Emirates are major polluters, and there have been complaints too about the FA’s grassroots football programme being sponsored by McDonald’s (too much fat, salt and sugar for some). But it’s certainly time for us to reconsider the extent to which a substance linked to as much harm as alcohol is so closely linked to sports – like football – that have such a broad appeal across all age-groups.