Drink and sports sponsorship - an uncomfortable alliance

Some weeks ago the top officials from the three major sporting organisations in this country headed to Leinster House to meet an Oireachtas committee dealing with the issue of sports sponsorship by drinks companies, writes Nickey Brnenan.

Some weeks ago the top officials from the three major sporting organisations in this country headed to Leinster House to meet an Oireachtas committee dealing with the issue of sports sponsorship by drinks companies, writes Nickey Brnenan.

Paraic Duffy (GAA), John Delaney (FAI) and Philip Browne (IRFU) pointed out the importance of this type of sponsorship to their respective organisations. I doubt if anyone on the Oireachtas Committee disagreed with that opinion.

But ultimately it is an uncomfortable subject for everyone; not least those top three sporting officials.

Drinks companies have been sponsoring sporting organisations for decades, but the relationship between the two is changing.

The importance of the sponsorship, not just to the top three sporting organisations, is obvious from their annual accounts.

The reality is that finding an alternative source of income would be very difficult particularly in the current economic climate.

There are conflicting views on how much the sponsoring of sporting activities impacts on the sale of alcohol, particularly amount young people.

Was reviewed

If drinks sponsorship was banned tomorrow would there be a sudden reduction in alcohol consumption? Of course there would not!

The sponsorship of the All-Ireland hurling championship by Guinness came up for review during my term as GAA President. It was a difficult debate as I have never been comfortable with the link between drinks sponsorship and the GAA.

The need for realism, though, was important. Locally many clubs receive sponsorship from a local hostelry which is often crucial to keeping it afloat.

There was a genuine acknowledgement, with which I concurred, that the innovative marketing from Guinness had significantly helped to increase hurling’s profile. That is not just my view because the research conducted by the GAA was very conclusive on the matter.

In fairness to the people in Guinness, they were always conscious of promoting a responsible attitude to drink consumption and no players were directly used during the various marketing campaigns.

When the GAA started to pursue the multi-sponsor model it was clear that this would help to dilute the influence of Guinness as they would now be part of a trio of sponsors.

An important part of what the GAA wanted to achieve was regaining ownership of the hurling championship.

That meant changing the competition title from ‘The Guinness senior hurling Championship’ to ‘The GAA senior hurling Championship’.

Much happier

The change may not have satisfied everyone but it did demonstrate a willingness by the GAA to alter its relationship with a major sponsor. On a personal level, I was much happier with this new arrangement.

The conundrum for any Oireachtas Committee looking at this subject is that were drinks sponsorship to be outlawed, the pressure would immediately fall on the Government to fill the void. The prospects of that happening right now are nil.

This country continues to have a serious alcohol abuse problem, but it is worth mentioning that for almost a decade the GAA has had a full time person in Croke Park working with counties to promote a responsible attitude among players and supporters regarding the consumption of alcohol.

Tougher economic times mean fewer pubs are sponsoring local teams leaving clubs with the challenge of finding alternative income. Even clubs with their own facilities are seeing a downturn in revenue.

Many Government spokespersons over the past decade have indicated a keenness to break the link between drinks companies and sporting organisations.

However, when it came to engaging with the various stakeholders numerous obstacles were identified. Not surprisingly, replacing the revenue which the sponsorship generated was always going to be the major stumbling block.

Sport is essentially about promoting a healthy lifestyle among its participants. Placing all the blame on drinks sponsorship for the loutish behaviour of some individuals is not fair, but many will genuinely feel that every sporting organisation should look elsewhere for financial support.

The debate will continue, but unless sporting organisations can find untapped income from another source do not expect the link between drink sponsorship and sport to disappear any time soon.