Labour’s nicotine-patch remedy goes up in smoke

Sport and tobacco have long been inseparable. But the link is being brutally severed – and Labour’s task force is doing little to help at a critical time.

Anyone who has ever tried to give up smoking knows how painful it can be. The irritability… The longing for just one more cigarette. But the past 20 years has seen a whole industry emerge to help people quit.

It’s this “kick the habit” approach the Government had in mind when it created, in a blaze of publicity, the Task Force on Tobacco Sponsorship. Launched shortly after the 1997 election, the force was a response to the European Commission ban on tobacco sports sponsorship, which comes into force in July 2003 – unless you happen to be involved in Formula One motor racing. F1 has been granted a stay of execution until 2006 as a “global event”.

The task force was to help those sports most hooked on the dreaded weed – angling, rugby league, ice hockey, clay pigeon shooting, darts, snooker and billiards, to name a few – find alternative clean-living sponsors.

It was equivalent to smoker’s nicotine patches and hypnosis, but for sport. In themselves they are not sexy activities, yet they attract millions of spectators and participants – aka voters – each year.

As with everything New Labour, the task force was given the necessary sprinkling of celebrity. Sir Richard Branson was co-opted to be a member (in fact, it was Virgin group strategy director Gordon Macallum who took Branson’s seat). Officially its main aim was to harness the “contacts and drive” of entrepreneurs, such as Branson, to meet sports’ needs.

Unfortunately, the force has not met since October 1999. Before MPs went on their two-month holiday, sports minister Kate Hoey quietly revealed that, having failed to get alternative sponsors, the force is in cold storage.

“Most sports have confirmed it is too soon to be looking at replacing existing contracts and have indicated that the help of the force can most effectively be targeted in the 12 to 18 months before contracts lapse,” Hoey told Conservative MP John Greenway following his earlier Parliamentary question.

The logic seems to make sense: use the advice when it is best needed. There is no point lining up a sponsor today to take over a competition in 2003. However, most sponsorship experts advise governing bodies not to wait until the final 12 to 18 months, but to approach sponsors now. Especially as some sports have been associated with tobacco for a long time.

“If they don’t have a presence in the market now, they will be starting from too far behind in 18 months’ time,” says one. That is advice the force should be offering rather than going into hibernation.

And that only tells part of the story.

The Rugby League Silk Cut Challenge Cup, for instance, comes to an end in April next year – not July 2003. It is exactly the type of sport that should be benefiting from the work of the force, having already reduced its dependence on tobacco over the years. But it isn’t.

At the moment rugby league is talking to two potential sponsors in the hope these will take over the &£1m-a-year contract for the sport’s most celebrated competition. It is tough finding a replacement because the market is more competitive than ever. The sport has had little support from the force.

Many other sports bodies have simply extended existing tobacco contracts, due to expire in 2000, 2001 or 2002, until July 2003. Not only does this go against the spirit of the EC ban – sport should be ending its association with tobacco at the earliest point, not wringing it out to the last drop – but it is also really damaging to the sports themselves.

Many are burying their heads in the sand, some privately hoping the EC will relent. It will not. Others hope Branson alone will save their sport. He will not.

The force should have been helping and encouraging sports governing bodies to end their dependency on tobacco earlier.

Not least because virtually all contracts for all sports are going to end at exactly the same time – July 2003. The sports will be chasing the same sponsors at the same time.

“I think it will become a real rat race,” says Rodney Coldron, spokesman for the National Federation of Anglers. It receives more than &£100,000 per year from the Imperial Tobacco brand Embassy, its biggest sponsor.

“There will be a lot of dirty tricks as the different sports try to get hold of sponsorships. But we are thrilled we have been talking three years in advance with Virgin.”

Coldron remains a fan of the force and believes it will help sports like his find new funding. The Department of Culture Media and Sport says the force is still on hand to help, but last week a spokesman wasn’t even able to name its members.

“We have not been impressed by the way the Government promised and then failed to deliver alternative sponsorships,” says a source at one of the sports most affected by the ban.

Perhaps it merely underlines the fact that the Government is not the right body to provide advice on sponsorship.

If that is the case, it should never have made such high profile promises in the first place. But then it would not have got the publicity it seems to crave, for launching yet another task force back in the heady days of 1997.

Tom O’Sullivan was formerly deputy editor of Marketing Week

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