We can’t blame sporting bodies for societal problems with alcohol abuse

FOOTBALL Association of Ireland boss John Delaney’s behaviour came back to haunt him last Wednesday morning.

Delaney is well known to many for exploits involving alcohol when on foreign trips involving the Irish football team, yet on Wednesday he was part of a delegation that visited an Oireachtas committee hearing to lobby for the continued sponsorship of sport by the alcohol industry.

Delaney has never been happy about media coverage of his behaviour at away matches but it has been the advent of new media that rumbled him. You Tube videos of him leading sing songs in bars during the qualification process for the Euro 2012 championships went viral, forcing traditional media to address the issues of his behaviour. Criticism of it — or of his habit of lobbing large sums of money behind the bar to cover tabs for supporters, as much as €1,000 on one occasion reportedly — didn’t stop him having a blast during the tournament in Poland either. No other football association boss is known to have been “crowd surfed” by revellers, or to have had their shoes and socks removed as part of the process.

Delaney defended himself from criticism on the basis that “we worked very, very hard”. He said that he was on a night out with family and that he was entitled to have leisure time. Nobody disagrees with that. And he may well be right to say that certain journalists got themselves into an even worse state when away on work trips. But that doesn’t excuse his own behaviour; he was representing Ireland.

However Delaney made some sensible arguments in favour of retaining alcohol sponsorship for sports events when he appeared in front of the Oireachtas committee. He said sporting bodies could not be blamed for societal problems with alcohol abuse. He also argued that what he called a “crude” ban on alcohol companies backing major competitions would actually damage society. “If you take the sponsorship away, the effect to this state would be greater because that money would not be spent in getting kids active in socially deprived areas,” he said.

While there is an argument that other non-alcohol companies would just step in to replace existing sponsors, there is little to suggest that is inevitable. Sponsorship is hard to come by at present because of the overall economic environment. It was not possible to find replacements for some sporting events when cigarette sponsorship was ended for example. The Government tried to save the annual Irish Snooker Open after the ban but nobody else came on board. Look at how difficult it has been to secure and retain annual sponsorship for the Irish Open golf tournament.

Some will argue that alcohol companies gravitate to sport because it clearly promotes consumption of alcohol. But I suspect it is more a brand promotion issue that is involved, that it is an effort to persuade people to consume a particular type of alcohol ahead of another. People would still drink alcohol at sports events, or watch games in the pubs, even if sponsorship was ended.

Alcohol consumption is falling sharply, a function of the economic downturn, with beer sales down about 15%, despite heavy marketing. It is not just the overall volumes, which could be blamed on emigration, but consumption per head, which is now falling to near EU averages. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem, and the cost to the State in alcohol-related crime and health issues is substantial, but let’s not deal with it incorrectly.

The GAA’s director general Páraic Duffy said the organisation accepted “there are issues around the misuse of alcohol, particularly by young people. And that these issues must be addressed.” These are not empty words. He was able to tell the Oireachtas committee about the detailed alcohol and substance abuse prevention programme in operation within the GAA nationally since 2006. It employs three people full-time and is operated in conjunction with the HSE. He was also able to refer to the ‘Off the Booze and Off the Ball’ initiative that encourages members to abstain from alcohol for the month of January, traditionally the quietest time on the GAA calendar.

He insisted sporting bodies would act if there was hard evidence that sponsorship of sport increased drinking among young people. But he said there was no such evidence and neither is there any to suggest removing sponsorship would reduce alcohol misuse in society.

Duffy said sporting organisations are willing to play an even bigger role in educating fans and raising awareness. But investment would be needed, and that money comes through sponsorship. This followed closely on Delaney’s theme.

There is self-interest involved in all of this of course. Philip Browne of the Irish Rugby Football Union said alcohol-related sponsorship was worth a total of €9million to the IRFU while Delaney said it was worth a significant portion of the FAI’s overall sponsorship revenue of €6m. Duffy said alcohol sponsorship was a small amount of the GAA’s overall revenue.

A personal declaration of interest is required of me at this point. The Last Word programme on Today FM and I have both engaged in a commercial relationship with Guinness for the promotion of Area 22, rugby-themed events staged in pubs. This extended into a television programme for TV3. Guinness was very keen to ensure nobody was seen to drink on stage and that the crowd behaved responsibly in its alcohol consumption. Since those events ended part of The Last Word’s other rugby coverage has been sponsored by Guinness.

And a further personal declaration: I am only an occasional imbiber, having not consumed any alcohol at all in 2013 to date. That does not mean that I won’t drink again — I most probably will — but I’m not blind to the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption and my sharp reduction in intake since 2006 has been motivated by a belief that light or no consumption is better for my health.

However, I do believe in personal choice for adults. I also believe that if people are going to drink it is better happening in the regulated environment of pubs rather than at home. I’m very aware of the problems caused to many people and their families by excessive drinking but I also believe those who do not abuse should not have their free choice constrained.

I am also cognisant of the massive employment created by the drinks industry in Ireland. I also think it would be hypocritical for the State to deny sporting organisations access to cash from that industry when the State benefits from a massive intake of taxes from it. All of those berating the financial costs to the State of alcohol abuse fail to mention how it is such a massive contributor to the exchequer.

I SUSPECT too that many making the arguments in favour of a ban have no real knowledge of the financial structures of sport. For example, some of the advocates of a ban say it was done in France. This ignores that French sport is funded largely by private owners with massive amounts of cash at their disposal, that State funding is substantial and the market for TV rights is way bigger than is the case in Ireland. So it is believable when Browne argued that the loss of alcohol sponsorship would not just reduce revenue but diminish the IRFU’s ability to attract major competitions or events to Ireland. Irish rugby is already facing many difficulties in staying competitive internationally and imposing further handicaps could intensify the spiral.

Listeners to The Last Word argued strongly this week that sponsorship normalises drinking alcohol and associates alcohol with the benefits that sports gives, such as fun, good times and well-being, that marketeers work towards swaying people’s attitudes to accept alcohol as a normal part of enjoying sport. It is a strong argument. But as one contributor suggested, if anti-social behaviour is the problem then why not target it directly, instead of the alcohol, because doing the latter punishes those who can use alcohol responsibly?

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.

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