Guest blog: Why don’t we take sport sponsorship more seriously?

Guest blog: Why don’t we take sport sponsorship more seriously?

In this guest blog, Food Active’s Director of Research, Robin Ireland, discusses the issues around sport sponsorship, paying attention to the history of tobacco industry sport sponsorship, and the current relationships sport has with the energy drinks industry, food, alcohol and gambling.

I have been asking myself this question for years. Particularly as I attend public health events when I seem to be one of the few who seems to take sport seriously or, conversely, when I present at sport conferences and no-one there seems to get public health.

Where public health seems to have missed a trick, the tobacco and the energy drinks industries certainly haven’t. I could also add Big Food, Alcohol and fossil fuel and gambling companies here, but I have limited space and I wanted to focus on the early lessons of tobacco industry sports sponsorship and the more contemporary challenges presented by today’s sugary caffeinated drinks marketeers.

Sport forms a powerful part of today’s culture and its brands and images evoke strong emotions which industries want to be associated with, as well as the young audience it delivers. The tobacco industry has a long history of ‘sponsoring sports to sell smoke’ (Proctor 2011, page 88). When cigarette advertising was banned from English television in 1965, companies like Philip Morris (now Altria Group) ensured their Benson and Hedges brand would receive newspaper and television coverage by sponsoring limited over cricket in the UK. The same company, using their Virginia Slims brand, financed the launch of the women’s professional tennis circuit in the US, allowing the brand to be promoted to teenage girls. Cigarette companies named sports competitions (e.g. Marlboro PGA Golf), helped popularise darts and snooker (Embassy) in Britain, and NASCAR (Winston) racing in the United States. Motor-racing proved particularly attractive to the cigarette companies. A Philip Morris executive is quoted in 1989, saying: “We perceive Formula One and Indy car racing as adding, if you will, a modern-day dimension to the Marlboro Man. The image of Marlboro is very rugged, individualistic, heroic. And so is this style of auto racing. From an image standpoint, the fit is good” (Goodman 2005, page 595).

The World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (2005) has helped drive tobacco advertising out of sport. However, today’s vaping companies are now also associating themselves with sport, giving themselves access to sport’s young followers. One of Britain’s leading rugby league clubs, St Helens, have rebranded their stadium (formerly Langtree Park) as the Totally Wicked Stadium, since 2017, taking the name of their Blackburn-based vape company sponsor. When Blackburn Rovers FC, who wear Totally Wicked’s logo on the front of their shirts, brought on a 15-year-old substitute, in an FA Cup tie in January this year, he had to wear a sponsor-less shirt as the Daily Mail reported that the player was “too young to promote the club’s vaping partner”. It seems it is ok though for the other players to promote the brand to Blackburn Rovers’ young fans.

Despite increasing concerns about the use of energy drinks by young people, leading global brand, Red Bull, have clearly closely followed the tobacco industry’s playbook in associating themselves with sport; but in a modern digital manner, using streaming and social media as well as more traditional approaches to advertising their product. I first wrote about Red Bull at about this time last year in connection to their association with FI; sound familiar? Red Bull of course have had to create a demand for their product, and where they’ve gone, others like Monster Energy, have quickly followed. Like Marlboro, Red Bull have cultivated an independent, heroic, risk-taking look. They’ve worked with cyclists, and skateboarders. They have a dedicated YouTube channel to showcase surfing. In 2012, Felix Baumgartner’s intrepid parachute jump from space was sponsored by Red Bull and set the scene for what happened next. Today, Red Bull’s YouTube channel has 15.1 million subscribers featuring 6.1K videos with a dazzling range of loud engines, water sports and snow scenes. Red Bull still advertise and sponsor sport – as well as their Red Bull motor-racing team, they also own Red Bull Leipzig in the German Bundesliga who play in the Red Bull Arena (in addition, New York Red Bulls playing in Major League Soccer).

And energy drinks are also the biggest players in electronic sports (esports). Esports are increasingly popular amongst a target demographic of adolescents and youth. Recently published research led by Pennsylvania State University shows how brands like Monster Energy and Red Bull saturate viewership hours.

The tobacco industry used sport to recruit young users for the best part of a century. It created huge profits for the tobacco companies involved at the expense of many people’s health. Energy drinks may not ring as many health alarms, but it seems that a new generation has bought into getting their frills from a product that didn’t even exist and wasn’t considered necessary until 1987 (when Red Bull was founded in Austria). And sport, as ever, has gobbled down the money, no questions asked. We are always told that sport’s administrators know best, and sport and politics don’t mix (most people would probably disagree after successive FIFA World Cups in Russia and Qatar, for example). The CEO of the English Premier League is the latest to oppose independent scrutiny of football. Whilst sport seems to be happy to take whatever money is on offer, it is about time that public health at least questions these relationships and considers how sport has been used to normalise a wide range of commercial determinants of health.

References:

Goodman, J. (2005) Tobacco in History and Culture: An Encyclopedia, vol. II, New York: Charles Scribners and Sons.

Proctor, R.N. (2011) Golden Holocaust. Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and The Case for Abolition, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Robin is the former Chief Executive of the Health Equalities Group having led the Heart of Mersey charity from its launch in 2003. Robin stood down as CEO in December 2016 and is now Director of Research (Honorary) for Food Active and Healthy Stadia. He is the author of ‘Sport, Sponsorship and Public Health’ (Routledge, 2023).

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