Down the hatch – there’s the catch

  • Post category:News

CHRISTY Moore once wrote a song about climbing up the walls in the cold, grey reality of the aftermath of a serious bender.

From the Irish Examiner

Delirium Tremens as a title speaks for itself. The lyrics are full of dark terror and lonely pain, all fused with Moore’s bawdy humour. The song was recorded in 1985, at a time when Guinness was running an excellent TV advertising campaign, which featured a surfer riding a huge wave, balanced on top of the world, poised as a perfect specimen of a human being, taking on the might of nature.

Moore’s lyrics contrasted the song’s narrator with this feat of sporting prowess.

“As I sat looking up at the Guinness ad, I could never figure out/
How your man stayed up on the surfboard, after 14 pints of stout.”

On sober reflection, the lyrics could be posed as a question, albeit one lacking Moore’s talent with words: What possible connection could there be between elite sports and getting tanked on booze?

That was nearly 30 years ago. In the intervening period, sports in this country has become inextricably linked with alcohol.

You think that’s an exaggeration? Listen back to some of the representatives of sports who came on the airwaves last week in response to the news that the Government was again considering banning alcohol sponsorship of sport.

– Philip Browne, chief executive of the IRFU, told Morning Ireland that the proposal amounted to “demonising sport”.

– John Tracey, chief executive of the Sports Council, suggested to Pat Kenny that the government was “targeting sport”.

– Former international rugby player Shane Byrne told an incredulous Vincent Browne that the proposal would lead to further obesity, because kids would play less sport if alcohol funding was withdrawn.

If such a suggestion was to be taken seriously, it follows that the physical and psychological health of the nation’s youth is massively dependent on flogging booze. Maybe your man on the surfboard did skull 14 pints of stout before catching a wave.

Each of the above representatives have given large chunks of their lives, personally and professionally, to promoting the best interests of sport, yet here they were sounding like spokesmen for the drinks industry, conflating the interests of sport, with those of multinational companies promoting a mood altering drug.

Others defending the sponsorship trotted out silly lines such as “watching the Heineken Cup never made me drink a pint of the stuff”. In other words, the sponsorship had no effect on sales of the product. This would make an excellent study in marketing colleges, a strategy which pumps the majority of advertising budgets into something from which no return is expected or desired.

Mention of “demonising” or “targeting” anything, not to mind sport, is ludicrous. The Government proposal is modest by any standards. Alcohol sponsorship of sports is to end by 2020, with no contracts signed after 2016. This gives sport seven years in which to cultivate ways of replacing the estimated €25 million that alcohol companies invest in promoting their brands.

The depressing aspect to last week’s debate in the media is that medics and sports representatives were lined up against each other, both claiming to represent the best interests of the nation’s health. They can’t both be right.

There are times when doctors peddle a line that might look suspicious. This is usually on occasions when their own interests, usually money or working conditions, are at issue. Apart from that though, I tend to believe nearly everything they say about health. They are the experts. And on this matter, they spoke with a uniform voice last week. Alcohol sponsorship in sport is bad for the nation’s health was the collective message.

The issue is quite simple. Is there a societal requirement to put further controls on the promotion of alcohol, particularly when it is directed at young people? There are already certain controls on the sale and marketing of alcohol as, notwithstanding the pleasure that can be derived from it when consumed modestly, it is regarded as a dangerous drug.

In a country where alcohol abuse is endemic, and is estimated to cost between€2 billion, surely this is a no-brainer?

Apparently not. As is often the case, vested interests can often trump the public good. So it is that at least three cabinet ministers have in the recent past opposed a similar proposal, and there is expected to be major resistance this time around.

It matters not that there is a body of evidence that directly links the marketing of alcohol with the onset of drinking among young people, and increased consumption among those who are already drinking. Health analyst, Sara Burke, told RTÉ’s Drivetime programme that a major longitudinal study showed that in 12 out of 13 studies a definite link was established. This result is good enough for the World Health Organisation, which references it, but is apparently not sufficient for those who make decisions in this country.

Sport has long been targeted by the elements of big business that can dedicate huge budgets to draw young people to their products. Before sport, cigarette companies flocked to sport to find new, youthful consumers. The Carrolls All Stars in GAA, the Carrolls Irish Open in golf, and snooker’s Benson & Hedges tournaments were all staples of sport as recently as the 1970s, and into the 1980s. Are we expected to believe that they also were engaged in a redundant marketing exercise?

The most recent entrant to sport in this regard has been gambling companies. Again, as with booze and cigarettes, the maximum return that marketing can deliver for gambling is from a youthful customer base. What 40-year-old takes up gambling and develops even a modest habit that can add to a betting company’s bottom line?

Across the water, in the Premier League, gambling companies now have a whole series of sponsorship deals with leading clubs, including Manchester United, West Ham, Aston Villa, Bolton Wanderers and Wigan. A number of sports here also benefit from this sector, principally horse racing, but the gambling companies are spreading their tentacles into all sports. Why wouldn’t they ”” that’s where the money is to be made?

Corporate entities have a duty to their shareholders to maximise return, and that is the sole reason that alcohol or gambling companies are involved in sport to the extent that they are. Government has a duty to all citizens, and not just consumers, or vested interests which has access and influence in the corridors of power.

Last year, a Government-appointed task force delivered a report that outlined a raft of measures that would be required in order to make any inroads to tackling the problem of the national lubricant.

Alcohol sponsorship is only one element of a strategy, but acting on it would signal a seriousness of intent that has until now been sadly lacking. For no matter what they try to tell you with the slickest of advertising, there is simply no way that man could have stayed up on the surfboard after 14 pints of stout.