A step in the right direction: The new alcohol sponsorship code for sporting events

Published 14 February 2014 | Authored by: Adam Lovatt

In this blog, Adam Lovatt considers the new alcohol sponsorship code for sporting events, introduced by the Portman Group on 31 January 2014 (the “Code”), and reflects on how it might be received in the United Kingdom.

In August 2013, I wrote a blog discussing the future prospects for alcohol sponsorship of sporting events in the United Kingdom and how this country may, in time, align itself more with France and Ireland in having stricter guidelines in respect of alcohol companies sponsoring sporting events. In France, the Loi Evin bans all advertising of alcohol at French based events, and in Ireland, the Department of Health has recently recommended that a ban on alcohol sponsorship of big sporting events should be in force by 2020.

The Code, which was issued by the Portman Group at the end of January and consists of a set of rules which signatories should adhere to, is the first alcohol sponsorship code governing sports, music and cultural events in the United Kingdom, and it seeks to promote responsible drinking.1 The number of bodies and organisations that have publicly expressed support for the Code is encouraging, ranging from alcoholic drinks companies to the Sport and Recreation Alliance. The Football Association and the England & Wales Cricket Board have also been included in discussions regarding the Code, and the likes of the Lawn Tennis Association and the Rugby Football Union will apply the Code when negotiating sponsorship deals with alcohol companies.

The Code states at Clause 1.1 that it 'seeks to ensure that alcohol is promoted in a socially responsible manner and only to those over 18', and will apply to all agreements agreed after 31 January 2014. All companies within the alcoholic drinks industry in the United Kingdom are responsible for ensuring compliance with the Code, as per Clause 1.10.

The key rules relating to alcohol sponsorship are contained within Section 3 and include that drinks companies must ensure that there is a recognisable commitment to promoting, within each new sponsorship agreement, responsible drinking and/or supporting diversionary/community activities (contained within Clause 3.1). Restrictions are in place at Clause 3.2 in relation to the sponsoring of individuals and teams containing individuals under the age of 18, and at Clause 3.3 there is a prohibition in place for sponsorship that through the likes of individuals, teams, events and tournaments appeal or are aimed at those under the age of 18.

Clause 3.12 is intriguing for those athletes who may wish to endorse alcohol, even simply by advertising an alcoholic brand on their clothing. It provides that 'drinks companies must not use images of people who are, or look as if they are, under twenty-five years of age, where there is any suggestion that they are drinking alcohol or they are featured in a significant role. Images may be shown where people appear only in an incidental context.' It will be interesting to see how far the Independent Complaints Panel, which is to be appointed in accordance with Clause 4 of the Code to deal with any complaints which can be made by members of the public or any form of organisation, takes its interpretation of this particular clause, and to see if this is the first step to a fully fledged ban on alcohol sponsorship by those under the age of 25.

While, ostensibly, the enforcement measures that the Portman Group has, which are outlined in Clause 5 of the Code, appear limited (namely ranging from requiring that remedial action be taken in the event of a breach, to expulsion from membership of the Portman Group or removal from the list of signatories to the Code), there does appear to be a real willingness from both sports bodies and alcohol companies to comply with its provisions and seek better awareness of the dangers of alcohol and to encourage responsible drinking.

The actual impact for sporting events and teams may not be felt for some time, due to the Code not having retrospective effect. As outlined in my previous blog, Rangers and Celtic have alcohol sponsorship on their strips. Will the Code impact, for instance, upon the willingness of Blackthorn and Magners to renew such sponsorship agreements with these clubs? Or will the sponsors see this as an opportunity to act as McDonald's have done, and seek to develop a relationship with governing bodies of sport to encourage youth participation?

Either way, the Code is a real step forward in encouraging responsible drinking. It does not go as far as the laws in France and Ireland, but with so many sporting bodies and alcohol companies on board and seemingly willing to work together, it can only be hoped that a culture of responsible drinking can be driven forward by the Portman Group and its partners through participation in and effective enforcement of the Code. The Code may, in time, be seen as a watershed moment in respect of sponsorship of sporting events in the United Kingdom. In years to come, it is quite possible that we will look back on the Code and those associated with it with a most favourable impression in helping to promote responsible drinking in the United Kingdom.

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About the Author

Adam Lovatt

Adam Lovatt

Adam is a lawyer specialising in sports law with IMG. Adam has a wide range of commercial and litigation experience from his four years as a qualified solicitor. Adam has a passion for sports law and is currently undertaking a IP Law Masters programme with the University of London. He is passionate about most sports particularly football, golf and tennis.

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