UK to follow Aussie lead on sports sponsorship? Don’t put your shirt on it

Australian sport and alcohol have enjoyed a long and sometimes fruitful relationship. From Foster’s multi-million dollar backing of Aussie Rules football association, the AFL through to tales of Aussie cricketers’ marathon drinking sessions en route to England to do Ashes battle, there is an indelible link between drink and sporting contest Down Under.

Russell Parsons

However, that link could soon be broken. The National Preventative Health Task Force, which was handpicked by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, has called for a complete ban on alcohol sponsorship in sport.

Predictably, rugby, cricket and football associations – heavily reliant on alcohol brands for revenue – have cried foul, claiming the ban could cost Aussie sports upwards of $300m.

Imagine if the same was to happen in the UK. Celtic, Rangers and Liverpool could be left with a huge hole in their finances as Carling and Carlsberg are forced to pull their shirt sponsorship while both Rugby codes would be left wanting as a number of official beers, title sponsors and “proud partners” were flushed from the sports.

For marketers too, a door to several valuable demographics would be slammed shut.

Is there an appetite in the UK to bar booze from the world of sport? Not, it seems, at Government level. Provisional and conditional Government backing of the alcohol industry’s Campaign for Smarter Drinking is a sign that No.10 is prepared to allow the industry a little time and space to prove it can be an affective partner in the battle to beat misuse

It can also be seen as an indication Westminster is not yet ready to duplicate its 2003 ban on cigarette advertising and big tobacco’s sponsorship of the sport.

However, rumblings can still be heard in the corridors of power. The Health Select Committee, a cross-party group of MPs currently in the advanced stages of an inquiry into alcohol misuse, has been zeroing in on the role of marketing and whether it encourages irresponsible consumption. Sponsorship,in particular the near unrestricted access drinks brands have to under-18s, has come under the spotlight.

Stephen Hesford, MP for Wirral West and a member of the Committee, although keen to stress that he cannot “pre-empt the Committee’s findings”, told Marketing Week that more stringent measures have to be considered.

“I can say that from the evidence I have heard so far, the option to ban or severely restrict the sponsorship of sporting events by the alcohol industry or advertising by the same, is something that has to be very seriously considered,” he says.

Strong words and a warning for drinks marketers as well as the world of sport.

Hesford and no doubt others at Portcullis House are not alone in seeking restrictions. The very vocal Alcohol Concern has long held the opinion that the UK should follow France’s lead in banning alcohol sponsorship in sport.

Chief Executive Don Shenker, says France’s example is proof that sport can live happily ever after alcohol.

“A complete ban on alcohol sponsorship of sport and music events will put a stop to alcohol companies associating the glamour of sport with drinking alcohol. High levels of teen drinking and alcohol harm cannot be allowed to grow unfettered,” he told Marketing Week.

Shenker makes a good point. Sport can survive when high value sponsors are forced top pull out. A number of sports previously reliant on big tobacco patronage cried foul when cigarette sponsorship was banned, but all have survived. Financial services firms have moved into cricket, betting firms into snooker and even Rugby League has faced the new reality, with men’s grooming brands replacing Regal and Silk Cut.

That is not to say that sporting associations, clubs and drinks marketers should ready themselves for a ban just yet. With a likely change of Government but 10 months away, the present incumbents are unlikely to go legacy shopping in this area with no indication from Tory Central Office that Cameron and cohorts are ready to confront the issue head on.

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