A sporting chance: Is it time to get off the booze and on the ball?

From the World Cup to international rugby and grassroots GAA, alcohol is everywhere in sport. But there are signs of a backlash and now ex-rugby international Denis Hickie has backed calls for a sponsorship ban. Kim Bielenberg reports.

From Independent.ie

George Best famously said of his hedonistic lifestyle: “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.” When you strip away the bravado, however, Best’s brilliant career was cut short by chronic alcohol addiction.

While drinking was tolerated up to a point back then, now it is seen as incompatible with the life of an elite athlete.

Legendary drinkers like Best, Paul McGrath and  Paul Gascoigne  could not survive in modern sport; and yet, the whole promotion and sponsorship of sport is steeped in booze, more than ever.

It was ironic that  Cristiano Ronaldo, an avowed teetotaller, played his recent World Cup matches surrounded by  Budweiser  hoardings. The beer brand’s marketing director Andrew Sneyd said of the World Cup: “This is the biggest global marketing campaign ever for Budweiser.”

The emotional intensity of sport is now identified with beer brands, like Heineken, Guinness and Budweiser.

To attend one of the Guinness Autumn rugby internationals at Lansdowne Road, such as the match between Ireland and the All Blacks last November, is to feel like one is part of an extended beer commercial – and kids are welcome to the party.

Dr Pat Kenny, lecturer in marketing at  Dublin Institute of Technology, says it is this intensity that makes sports sponsorship as important to alcohol companies as other forms of advertising.

The alcohol companies have lobbied effectively to stop restrictions on their effective method of promoting alcohol among young people through the medium of sport.

Roisin Shortall, the former junior health minister, wanted to phase out alcohol sponsorship by 2016. Then it was pushed out to 2020. And then any attempt to limit sponsorship foundered in the cabinet, and was kicked into touch.

It seemed like the game was over. The drinks companies and the alcohol-dependent sporting bodies got their way, but now there are signs of a backlash.

An unprecedented debate has started in the rugby fraternity, and alcohol addiction is a matter of much discussion in the GAA.

From next January, pubs will not be allowed to sponsor GAA juvenile teams. Bars can no longer be used as venues for events such as underage medal ceremonies, and the GAA has an “Off the booze, and on the ball” campaign.

Few sports have had such a dependency on alcohol sponsorship as rugby. It takes in €9m a year from the drinks companies.

The  Irish Rugby Football Union  (IRFU) has resisted any attempt to restrict alcohol promotion targeting fans and TV viewers, but now a former player,  Denis Hickie, has broken ranks from a group that once seemed like a monolith.

Hickie has told how uncomfortable he felt when he was a player about events and promotions for alcohol sponsors.

The ex-winger, who played with distinction for Ireland and Leinster, has supported a campaign to have alcohol sponsorship banned.

Hickie appeared at a private briefing of politicians in Leinster House and told them that the majority of players do not drink at all during the rugby season. Players had extended their careers by staying off the booze.

At the Leinster House meeting, Hickie was flanked by Tom McGurk, RTE’s rugby presenter, who has also spoken out against the prevalence of alcohol promotion in the sport.

McGurk, who has fronted RTE’s international rugby coverage for decades, told Weekend Review: “We have an alcohol crisis in this country, and in my opinion over the past 20 years it has been driven by ruthless marketing. It is well-funded and brilliantly organised.

“It is a bizarre situation that sport, which is supposed to make people fit and healthy, is associated with the most dangerous drug in the country.

“I come from a rugby culture, but I see kids who are more drunk than any rugby player I ever saw in my life. Anybody who thinks they can deal with this problem without dealing with marketing is codding themselves.”

It is no coincidence that the alcohol companies are particularly interested in sponsoring sport and music, the preoccupations of young people.

The pressure group Alcohol Action highlights research showing that the peak beer consuming years are between 18 and 29. Men in the 18-34 age bracket drink 70pc of all beer.

It is no surprise, therefore, that viewers of sports programmes are bombarded with drink advertising and sponsorship messages. At the last Euro football championships, researchers found viewers were exposed to an average of one alcohol brand per minute.

Dr Kenny highlights a study by the European research body AMPHORA looking at the effects of drink sponsorship on adolescents with an average of 14.

The study found: “Overall, adolescents expect, due to alcohol-branded sport sponsorship that alcohol will make them feel positive, activated and sedated or experience less negative effects from using alcohol.”

The relentless alcohol marketing sinks in much earlier than 14. Other research in  Britain  of 10 and 11-year-olds shows that children are more familiar with beer brands than they are with brands of ice- cream or cake.

Ms Shortall, who tried to phase out sponsorship, welcomes the intervention of the former rugby international Denis Hickie.

She says: “He has broken the ring of silence that surrounds this issue. He has been quite brave in outlining how uncomfortable he felt with alcohol sponsorship.”

Asked why it takes sponsorship from drinks companies, a spokesman for the IRFU said it works with a number of sponsors to secure funding to protect the continued development of rugby at grassroots and professional level.

The spokesman added: “The IRFU, along with all sporting bodies in the country, advocates the responsible use of alcohol.

“The IRFU is particularly conscious of its responsibilities in relation to the sensitivity of alcohol around minors and this is dealt with in its Code of Ethics, with no advertising of alcohol at U-18 rugby events and a self-imposed restriction on alcohol-related sponsorship of its teams from U-20 level downwards.”

In response to Denis Hickie’s reported concerns, the spokesman said: “The IRFU works closely with players to agree all aspects of promotional support.”

While the rugby authorities are keen to maintain alcohol sponsorship, there has been a move away from dependence on drinks companies in the GAA. Although Guinness still supplies beer to  Croke Park, it is no longer a main sponsor.

The GAA now has an active alcohol and substance abuse prevention programme, led by the former Leitrim footballer Colin Regan. This reaches down to grassroots level, and every club is required to have an officer focusing on issues surrounding addiction.

Although the GAA has not called for a blanket ban on alcohol sponsorship, Regan says: “There has been an attempt to denormalise the link between alcohol and sport, particularly among our juvenile members.”

There are mixed views in the GAA on whether a ban on alcohol sponsorship would make much difference to problems with alcohol among young people.

The Offaly footballer Niall McNamee has spoken openly about his problems with gambling addiction and drink.

He says: “I am not sure that a ban on sponsorship is the way to handle [it].

“I think it is much more important that people realise how drink can cause them problems. For the GAA it is about getting the message out there at a local level.”

The sporting bodies have expressed fears that they would lose out if the estimated €30m in alcohol sponsorship was denied to them through government legislation.

They point to the fact that overall funding through the  Irish Sports Council  is only €40m.

These arguments do not wash with broadcaster McGurk, who said he had heard it all before when restrictions were imposed on cigarette companies.

“We were told when they banned tobacco sponsorship there would be no more motor racing, no more snooker and no more tennis,” he says. “Well just look, and you will see they’re alive and well.”

Indo Review