Drinks companies’ sponsorship of sport will end – the only question is when

The proposal to phase out alcohol sponsorship of big sporting events is sensible, practical and to be expected. It should be uncontroversial.

From The Irish Times

There is, after all, nothing knee-jerk about how the Department of Health has arrived at the decision and nothing hasty about how it will be implemented. The tap of alcohol money is not being turned off immediately and sports organisations will be given considerable time to adjust – 2020 has been mentioned as the cessation date – to reconsider their commercial strategies.

Nonetheless, the response from industry and from the country’s premier sporting organisations gives the impression that this is a policy bolt from the blue – and a potentially ruinous one at that. Opposition to the plan is grounded in the argument that sport, at national and grassroots levels, would suffer irreparable damage from the withdrawal of money from the major drink companies.

It is rooted, too, in the rubbishing of claims that there is any cause and effect at work in the sponsorship of sporting events and organisations. Sean Kelly, Fine Gael MEP and former GAA president, made this clear on Morning Ireland recently, stating that sponsorship ban proposals are based on mere “opinion, not evidence”.

He is hardly alone in that view. It has become the default defence of the drinks industry and their sporting dependants. When the leaders of the three major sporting organisations – the FAI, the GAA and the IRFU – came together to protect the status quo to the all-party Committee on Transport and Communication in March this year, they too pointed to an absence of evidence of a possible beneficial effect of reducing alcohol misuse in society.

But drink sponsorship is not neutral. It does have an impact: indeed, that’s the whole point of it and there is evidence to prove that this is the case. Some of this evidence, specifically on the effect of alcohol advertising on young people, was presented by Professor Joe Barry of Alcohol Ireland to the same Oireachtas Committee, including the findings of a European Commission study which showed an association between exposure to alcohol sports sponsorship and increased drinking among schoolchildren. He also cited evidence of a similar nature from Australia and New Zealand.

Little about the current debate is new of course. In many ways, what we are witnessing now is the reheating of arguments that were previously played out over cigarettes. And it’s instructive to look back at that debate to see where we are heading with this one. Opposition to cigarette advertising and sponsorship in Ireland around sport built steadily from the 1960s, led, for the most part, by Dr.  Noel Browne  – of Mother and Child scheme fame. Browne brought to the issue a medic’s knowledge and a social campaigner’s zeal and in the Dáil in 1964 he was withering in his assessment of reputable sporting bodies who propounded a concern for the welfare of youth and yet had allowed themselves become “cheap advertisement for the cigarette companies”.

Browne’s remarks, however trenchant, had little immediate impact. A decade later and cigarette sponsorship of big sporting events bordered on the ubiquitous: from the GAA All-Stars to the Irish Open Golf championship, high profile sport defiantly bore the branding of major tobacco manufacturers whose promotional opportunities had already been limited by the imposition of restrictions on cigarette advertising.

Two developments eventually turned the tide against cigarette sponsorship. One was the advocacy of determined, medically informed, lobby groups like the  Irish Heart Foundation  and the  Irish Cancer Society. The second was the growing public policy emphasis on preventive over curative medicine, which found expression in, among other things, the Tobacco Products (Control of Advertising Sponsorship & Sales Promotion) Bill, 1978- a modest but significant legislative milestone introduced by  Charles Haughey  as Minister for Health.

As regulations tightened further in the 1980s, alarmist concerns were repeatedly voiced about their potential to financially cripple sport.

Yet sport survived. It adjusted and moved on. So too did health debates around sports sponsorship and the only surprise about the shift in public policy focus from tobacco to alcohol is how long it has actually taken to reach the point where its abolition is being seriously considered.

Indeed the trajectory of the current debate is striking for its similarity with that of the 1970s and 80s. Once again, the lead is being taken by voluntary, doctor-led lobby groups and once again the financial ruin of sporting organisations is being predicted. Only the GAA, notwithstanding its public show of solidarity with the FAI and the IRFU, appears to have envisaged a future without drink sponsorship. The Association has greatly reduced its dependency on revenues from this source in recent years and its complete replacement would be in keeping with the spirit of its unique and innovative Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention programme (ASAP), which it has been rolling out among its community club network since 2006 with the help of the HSE.

The GAA is certainly not alone in doing good deeds. All sports organisations contribute significantly to our society and they are right to highlight both their work in promoting social participation and healthier lifestyles and their claims for greater public funding for their grassroots activities. They are also right in stating that the drinks sponsorship of sport is not the primary cause of society’s alcohol problem. The reality is that the relationship between sport and drink pre-dates modern public health concerns; it is complex and long-standing and the mere abolition of sponsorship by drinks companies won’t, on its own, encourage moderation or bring about a thinning of the queues to the bars and pubs around our major sporting venues. Only a multifaceted health strategy will do that.

But the cause of sport is undermined when its representative bodies wilfully deny evidence of the influence that sponsorship of high profile sporting events can have on attitudes and behaviour, particularly among the young. And sport is differentfrom the arts or other cultural pursuits: it alone proclaims the inherent physical health benefits of the activities it promotes. That’s why, on this issue, the major sporting organisations ultimately argue from a position of weakness.

That’s why, in setting themselves against a body of medical opinion, against the drift of Government health policy and logic of their own professed values, their defence of the continuation of drink sponsorship is unlikely to hold out. As with cigarettes in the past, this is an issue that is only going to resolve itself in one way. Drink sponsorship will end: the when and how is what needs to be negotiated and that’s where sporting organisations should focus their energies.

Mark Duncan is a historian and founder of InQuest Research Group. His books includeThe GAA: A People’s History  (2009) (with Mike Cronin and Paul Rouse)