What does the future hold for alcohol sponsorship of major sporting events?

Published 12 August 2013 By: Adam Lovatt

Fans Drinking Beer

This blog will consider the sponsorship of major sporting events, and ask where the line should be drawn in terms of who can sponsor sporting events and teams given recent developments on alcohol sponsorship in Ireland.

Alcohol Concern has recently stated that alcohol advertising should be banned from major music and sporting events in the UK to protect young people from excessive exposure to alcoholic products.1

At European level the Audiovisual Media Services Directive regulates alcohol sponsorship with Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority having responsibility for broadcast advertising in the UK.2

The EC Directive aims to provide for stricter rules to be in place throughout Europe for alcohol advertising involving channels, advertised products and time slots. The Directive restricts alcohol advertising rather than provide for a complete ban on it. The ASA has a particular aim of protecting young people from alcohol advertising and ensuring that advertising should not show alcohol being used irresponsibly or indeed alcohol being shown to be linked with social success. 

It is anticipated that with the recent developments in Ireland in relation to alcohol advertising and the proposals by the Department of Health to ban large alcohol sponsorship of large sporting events in that country, pressure may be put on the regulatory authorities to implement stricter rules in the UK than those which are currently in place.

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. There is a major concern in Ireland that alcohol abuse, particularly concerning under 25's, is encouraged, to some extent, by the advertising of sporting events by alcohol companies. The proposals have been met with a great deal of resistance, with some concerned that Ireland will fall behind its European neighbours if strict alcohol related provisions are implemented.3  Indeed, the Olympic Council of Ireland has voiced its concerns at the proposals.4

Could sport recover from the loss of income from alcohol companies? How can the advertising void be filled?

Sport has of course overcome concerns in the past in relation to tobacco sponsorship. The Football Association took the decision to ban tobacco sponsorship in 1986 and other sports who heavily relied upon tobacco sponsorship have followed suit, most notably snooker and Formula 1. The EU has again been behind the drive to eliminate tobacco sponsorship from sport. A key issue to consider though is where to draw the line on who should be allowed to sponsor sporting events and who indeed can make such a decision.

Snooker now relies on Betfair to sponsor the World Snooker Championships (having moved on from a long association with Embassy tobacco company), yet the Gambling Act 2005 aims to protect young people from being harmed or exploited by gambling organisations. If the UK were to move, to a ban on alcohol advertising, it is possible that gambling organisations will become the predominant source of sponsorship funds in the UK, and we may in time see many objections to this development. Is it time for sporting bodies to consider if they more interested in public health and well-being or on being able to maximise profits in whatever way possible? Of course, at all times, one does have to bear in mind the right of the freedom of speech of those wishing to sponsor sporting events.

Bolton Wanderers have responded to pressure from fans and politicians in deciding to drop the pay-day loan company QuickQuid as their sponsor for the 2013/2014 season.5 The University of Bolton will now feature on their strip. Yet is this truly economical? Will fans accept a lower valued sponsorship deal with a more ethical organisation if the performance on the pitch is compromised?

Young people cannot get away from alcohol advertising despite the laws which are in place to prevent them being targeted by such adverts. Last season for instance, replica Rangers and Celtic strips for children had no sponsor on them due to the terms of the sponsorship deal in place for each club being with an alcoholic drink provider.6 However, children still see the sponsor appear on adult strips (including those worn by players on the pitch) and they watch television where major football events are sponsored by companies from the alcohol industry (with events such as the FA Cup and Champions League being heavily sponsored by alcohol companies). Without a total ban, it may prove to be impossible to prevent young people from being affected and indeed targeted by alcohol related organisations.

Some may argue that it is time that the UK moved more in line with France (as Ireland are proposing) where the Loi Evin bans all advertising of alcohol at French based events and restricts alcohol advertising at events involving France which are held within the country. The Welsh rugby team have recently had to change strips when playing in Paris in Six Nations matches in order that the sponsorship on the strips by the Brains beer company was not seen by the French public. The steps which may be taken in Ireland, may provide the necessary impetuous for a similar ban in the UK in order to keep us in line with our closest geographical neighbours.

The most obvious example of the disparity between the UK and the French position comes in the form of the Heineken Cup. In France, the tournament is known as the H Cup due to the restriction on alcohol sponsorship. The premier European club rugby tournament relies on a large extent to their title sponsor and television rights as a way of securing large income which can be passed onto participants in the tournament. Despite Heineken being prevented from having their full advertising campaign available for all to see in France, they are happy to continue as lead sponsor of the event, most likely because the restrictions on advertising which are in place, only affect French clubs playing home matches. 

The health and general well-being of the future generation has to be taken into consideration when issues of sponsorship are being considered. However, in the competitive sporting environment within which we live, can a high level of performance be obtained without organisations relying upon the best sponsorship deal available to them and the income that this brings? The hurdles that would have to be overcome to ensure a complete ban on alcohol sponsorship in sport, may prove to become too difficult to clear. Yet if the ban in Ireland can encourage healthier living and put less pressure on the health services in that country, momentum may gather behind a similar ban in the UK.

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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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