Professional sports today is a major source of promoting unhealthy products. Elite athletes have become promoters of harmful lifestyle choices – instead of inspiring millions to live healthy and well…

The beginning of June usually is a paradise for pro-sports lovers: Just today aficionados of sports at the highest level of competition and excellence can marvel in a myriad of offers: the NBA Finals, the start of the Fifa Women’s World Cup, the UEFA Champions League Final, The French Open Women’s Final at Roland Garros, the NHL Stanley Cup, The Formula 1 race in Canada, and the Southeast Asian Games in Singapore. Not a week ago the 98th edition of the Giro D’Italia reached the finish line after another “epic ride” through mountains and valleys and all winds and weathers and the national cup finals in Germany and England took center stage in Olympiastadion, Berlin and Wembley, London.

This weekend is a microcosm of the marvellous and diverse offer of sports entertainment at the top level. All year around, every week and every weekend, there’s something to get excited about – some epic drake, some new losers and endearing heroes, some new story of perseverance and overcoming obstacles. Next week, the US Open golf tournament opens its gates and soon enough in July Wimbledon, the Tour de France, the Pan-American Games, the Summer Universiade and the World Swimming Championship follow suit.

This weekend is special, though, with its amount of top level sports events: Basketball, football, tennis, ice hockey, motorsports, multisport. What do they have in common? To me, the answer is simple and contains some magic. I have grown up playing all kinds of sports and developed love and appreciation for many of them. So, to me, the answer is: meticulous preparation of mind and body; the hope that hard work reaps benefits; team efforts – even in individual sports; extending the limits of physical and mental performance of the human body; going beyond the boundaries of what was deemed possible and accomplishing the impossible;  strength of character in victory and loss; display of fairness or – sometimes – the lack of fairness on the heat of fierce competition; stories of struggle, overcoming, triumph or heart-breaking defeat; personal heroes and villains; inspiration and emotion; entertainment.

The glory of sports

Watching Michael Jordan’s elegance, fluidity and power of mind (or Stephen Curry this weekend) motivated me to try and hoop myself; the magic Zinedine Zidane produced (or Andres Iniesta this weekend) kept me on the pitch for long hours; the heroics of Jan Ullrich on his bike opened me to the beauty of cycling and made me go on long rides, alone in all weathers and his doping scandal broke my heart; the grace of Roger Federer taught me how to play tennis just from watching him.

I don’t know what this list would look like for you, what sports would mean for you and which athletes are inspiring you. For sure it seems to be an impressive and significant impact pro-sports can have on how we live our lives and how we conduct ourselves – at least when playing the respective sport.

However, all those sports, and their elite athletes have at least one more aspect in common: an unconscious amount of marketing of unhealthy products, the use of which causes chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease and/ or lung disease.

Consider the World Cup Final from 2014: This football game broke the viewer rating records in Germany. 35 million people watched the game and saw Germany win its fourth World Championship. That’s almost half the German population and it for sure means that millions of German girls and boys were watching, too – being exposed to alcohol marketing. In Germany these types of football matches garner tremendous numbers of viewers, including children and youth, of often close to 90% share of the total TV audience. The German Football Association, DFB, counts as its “Premium Partner” one of the biggest beer manufacturers in Germany, Bitburger Holding – that was also involved in illegal activities. The DFB is the largest football association in the world with almost 7 million members. Boys and girls under the age of 18 make up 32.3% of the total amount of members. They are regularly exposed to the glamorisation of alcohol.

This winter, the Nordic Ski World Cup, held in Falun, Sweden, received much criticism for its endorsement deal with Russian vodka producer Cristall-Lefortovo LLC that manufactures and distributes vodka, wine, and cognac products all over the world. Athletes were carrying the brand of vodka on their chests as they were pushing themselves to super-human endurance performances. The hypocrisy and mind-boggling senselessness  can be summarised in one photograph:

Petter Northug promoting hard liquor, as convicted driver under the influence of alcohol

The hypocrisy of professional sports

The endorsement deals of major sports events and the governing bodies of global sports have reached a peak of dubbel moral standards. This list is just the tip of the iceberg:

  • An athlete who crashed his car while alcohol intoxicated, promotes vodka while being celebrated for his skiing achievements.
  • The world’s largest beer producer, Anheuser-Busch InBev, has critiqued the National Football League, NFL, for its handling of domestic violence scandals.
  • Fifa, whose best player chooses to live free from alcohol, and Fifa, who encourages kids to stay away from alcohol and other drugs in “health promotion” videos, has forced the Brazilian government to change its effective laws curbing alcohol violence in football stadiums, just to promote the interest of Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev).
  • The National Basketball Association, NBA, runs a program called NBA Cares but is so drenched by alcohol marketing in all its broadcasting that one must wonder what they do care about actually.

In The United States, every 15 seconds a woman is beaten by her partner (husband, boyfriend). Domestic Violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 to 44 according to findings by the former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. Intimate Partner violence costs the United States $12.6 billion a year. Perpetrators are estimated to use alcohol in 55% of all cases – according to the WHO.

AB InBev deserves being called out for hypocrisy in the United States. And so do all the other sports events and sports governing bodies that still continue to rake in profits from alcohol sponsorship deals.

Major sporting events 2015 and the proliferation of marketing of harmful products

An analysis of major sports events quickly shows just how entrenched alcohol marketing is – and how aggressively the youth of the world is being exposed to alcohol through sports events. If we simply browse chronologically through a year of major sports events, we see that:

  • The Stanley Cup Finals in the United States, between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Tampa Bay Lightning, are also in the strong grip of the alcohol industry: industry giants SABMiller and Diageo have their brands well in place. Other corporations of the corporate consumption complex manufacturing unhealthy products are looming as sponsors as well: PepsiCo. and McDonalds, Gatorade, Kellogg’s and Kraft.
  • Formula 1 teams are sponsored by alcohol producers, and FIA, the governing body of global motorsports has rejected banning alcohol marketing in Formula 1. Diageo, the world’s biggest alcohol producer sponsors the McLaren team. United Breweries, the market leader in beer in India, is sponsoring the Force India team. And Martini & Rossi sponsor Williams.
  • ATP Grand Slam Tournaments in Roland Garros and Wimbledon are also promoting alcohol as major sponsors. Browsing through the French Open Website one cannot avoid being exposed alcohol marketing among pictures of tennis success and glamour.
LVMH Moët Hennessy • Louis Vuitton S.E. (LVMH), is a French multinational conglomerate
LVMH Moët Hennessy • Louis Vuitton S.E. (LVMH), is a French multinational conglomerate

Wimbledon, as the picture above shows, has sponsorship deals with brands of AB InBev and Pernod Ricard.

  • The 28th Southeast Asian Games take place between June 5 and 16 and feature 36 sports and 402 events in Singapore. Official partners are McDonalds and Nestlé, but I was glad to understand (as far as my research could tell) that they do not have alcohol industry sponsors.
  • The Tour de France, the world’s toughest bike race, doesn’t have alcohol sponsors. That’s a wise move for a competition whose participants used to die because of alcohol use as “performance enhancer”. However, the Tour de France has a partnership deal with Sodexo, the largest food services and facilities management company in the world as of 2013, and a company with a horrific Human Rights track record. SourceWatch writes: “Sodexo has a lengthy record of paying workers poverty wages, overcharging clients, opposing unions, and violating food and safety standards.”
  • The IAAF World Championships in Beijing in August this year don’t provide information (as far as I can see) about their sponsors. However, the International Association of Athletics Federations doesn’t partner with any corporation from among the corporate consumption complex that manufacture products promoting ill-health.
  • The UCI Road World Championships (cycling), however, list Altria as one of the partners for the event in September 2015. Altria is based in Richmond, USA and is among the largest tobacco companies in the world and the parent company of Philip Morris USA, which is the leading cigarette manufacturer in the United States and has been for more than 30 years.​ It also own alcohol manufacturers. In addition, Altria Group, Inc. has a 28.7% economic and voting interest in one of the world’s largest brewing companies SABMiller, where it has 3 seats on the 11-person board of directors.
  • The Rugby World Cup, held from September 18 to November 1, 2015 boasts Heineken as “Worldwide partner” among its “RWC Sponsor Family“.

Heineken is also one of the “official sponsors” of the UEFA Champions League. As I’m writing this blog, Barcelona and Torino are playing the final and scenes like this are taking place all over the world:

Kids surrounded by alcohol, Champions League Final 2015

Last year’s UEFA Champions League final was viewed in 200 countries with a projected global unique reach of 380 million viewers. Millions of children and youth have been targeted by alcohol marketing and have been exposed to the obvious tactic: to associate football as closely with Heineken beer as possible. The same hold true for the ongoing NBA Finals. Game 1 between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers reached a record high of almost 18 million viewers in the United States alone – with alcohol marketing being put into every corner of the broadcasts. I wrote about the alcoholized NBA already during last year’s Finals.

Systematic and targeted marketing tactics

In order to boost their sponsorship investments – some of which I have enumerated above – alcohol industry corporations are aggressively  making use of social media – such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat etc. – in order to merge the emotions, glamor and success of sports with alcohol consumption. An study from Australia has found that the alcohol industry promote their brands by using a range of tools – e.g. smartphone apps, trivia and tipping competitions, celebrity endorsements and promotional merchandise – in order to engage with consumers and gain access to their extended social networks. Study author and Associate professor Westberg said: “We looked specifically at how they’re using sport-linked messages to interact with consumers, and from what we’ve observed, it does appear that there is a real sort of effort to immerse the brand as a natural or routinised part of the consumption experience.”

Alcohol marketing causes children to start consuming alcohol at an earlier age and if they are already using, to consume more alcohol. We also know that those underage alcohol user who are most exposed to alcohol marketing, are also most likely to report dangerous consumption behaviours. Evidence shows that kids who scored highest on familiarity with alcohol ads were more than four times more likely to take up binge alcohol intake compared with low scoring peers.

Furthermore, evidence shows that University students who play sports and who personally receive alcohol industry sponsorship or whose club or team receives alcohol industry sponsorship appear to have more problematic alcohol intake behaviour than university students who play sports and receive no alcohol industry sponsorship.

Early onset of alcohol use means increased risk of health and social harm: the earlier kinds start using alcohol, the higher becomes the probability that they will develop alcohol use disorders later on in life; the earlier they start consuming alcohol, the higher is the likelihood of kids engaging in binge alcohol intake. And binge alcohol consumption does cause many problems: from fighting and sexual encounters that the youngsters regret, to injuries and deaths youths sustain when they drive under the influence of alcohol.

James D. Sargent, MD, writes: “Pediatricians see these problems in our clinics and emergency rooms; that’s why we want to find out whether there are risk factors for binge drinking that could be modified to reduce the problem. Alcohol marketing seems to be a key modifiable risk factor.”

Glorification of ill-health: Corporate Consumption Complex dictates lifestyle choices

We live in a world in which the corporations that make up the corporate consumption complex increasingly dictate the lifestyle choices that are available and seem attractive to children and youth. In the UK children are more familiar with alcohol brands than with brands of candy and cake. A world has emerged in which corporations that manufacture, advertise, and sell products that are harmful to the health and well-being of humans get the most lucrative platforms to reach more and more and young and younger people with their marketing.

In 2014 AB InBev won the “Hashtag Super Bowl” with three of its brands among the top 10.

Sports sponsorship, amplified by social media is tremendously lucrative for companies. Even the Fifa scandal that is unfolding these days, increased the alcohol industry’s reach in the social media. Adweek reports: “Budweiser’s Twitter Mentions Jumped 525% After FIFA’s Sepp Blatter Quit. Call it the John Oliver effect.” And here lies the reason why corporations make these huge investments, despite some negative headlines – as in the case with Fifa and the NFL: “Budweiser still wants to be the dominant global brand, but it also wants to be everyone’s best buddy. It wants to be tied to the most popular sports on Earth, but it would really prefer not to focus on their uglier sides. It wants all the benefits of its Belgian-Brazilian international ownership, but wants people to think of Clydesdales, wagons and brick breweries in St. Louis,” as MarketWatch analysed.

As measured across Twitter using Hashtracking™

The consequences can be seen, and I’ve mentioned some of them: alcohol-related gender-based violence, road traffic fatalities, non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

NCDs cause 60% of all death globally, and 80% of these are in low- and middle-income countries. The major killers of adults in the developing world have shifted to cardiovascular disease and cancer. Importantly, these NCD deaths in low and middle income countries will occur at lower ages than in high income countries, causing an even greater impact on the total disease burden.

In many high-income countries about 20% of fatally injured drivers have excess alcohol in their blood (i.e. above the legal limit). Studies in low-income countries have shown alcohol to be present in between 33% and 69% of fatally injured drivers.

At Movendi International, we have addressed the problems of sports sponsorship on numerous occasions, for example with regard to the Fifa World Cup in Brazil in 2014. Companies that long to the alcohol, tobacco, fast food and sugary drinks industry should not be allowed to associate their unhealthy products with elite sports.

Watching sports is wonderful in many aspects and to witness greatness of the world’s best athletes can be truly exhilarating and inspiring. However, I think this overview shows just how embedded marketing of unhealthy products has become in the global sports industry; and it shows just how entrenched cooperation between sports events and sports governing bodies and health-threatening industries, like Big Alcohol, has become. This a not a zero sum game. The entertainment and inspiration of professional sports is becoming irrelevant in the avalanche of harm that rampant sponsorship of harmful products and their manufacturers.

Red Bull and vodka. Fast food and cola. Tobacco and alcohol. Elite sports is today a world of hypocrisy and dubbel moral standards. The consumption of professional sports with its machinery of promoting the world’s worst products (with regard to health, well-being, and socio-economic development) has become a problem. Not everything is bad, as a few examples above illustrate. But the situation is very serious – if sports do not promote health and well-being, who will?

For further reading

When millions in the USA and around the world gather to follow the 49th Super Bowl, a lot will be on the line – more than you’d think…


Beckham And Diageo: Alcohol Marketing Violates Child Rights

David Beckham and alcohol industry giant Diageo put their own profits over the rights and well-being of children around the world…


DFB Cup Final Alcohol Free

Finally, a little step in the right direction. The German football cup final will be alcohol free in and around the Olympic Stadium in Berlin…


A Peak Into The Mind Of Big Alcohol CEO

We see a Big Alcohol CEO in disconnect. The disconnect is not enough though. Spendrup follows up to take us on a time travel back into The Dark Ages…

Scientific research articles

James D. Sargent, MD, et. al.: Cued Recall of Alcohol Advertising on Television and Underage Drinking Behavior, in JAMA Pediatr. 2015

Kerry S. O’Brien, et. al.: Alcohol industry sponsorship and hazardous drinking in UK university students who play sport, in Addiction Volume 109,  Issue 10, October 2014

Timothy Naimi, MD, David H. Jernigan, PhD, et. al.: Selection of Branded Alcohol Beverages by Underage Drinkers

Olivia Belt, David H. Jernigan, et al.: Vested interests in addiction research and policy. Alcohol brand sponsorship of events, organizations and causes in the United States, 2010–2013, in Addiction, Volume 109,  Issue 12, December 2014

Source Website