Banning alcohol sponsorship in sport could be ‘catastrophic’

IRISH sporting organisations face an anxious wait as a government steering group prepares a report which is expected to recommend the phasing out of alcohol sponsorship in sports.

Such an outcome has been described by informed sources as “potentially catastrophic and hugely damaging.”

The banning of alcohol sponsorship in sport is expected to be among those recommendations issued by the Steering Group on the National Substance Misuse Strategy when it reports to the government in the near future.

“The group hasn’t finished its deliberations yet but there are conversations taking place about sponsorship,” said a source close to the steering group.

“It’s ‘out there’ that, that is being discussed.

“If the group recommends a ban then that doesn’t mean the government will necessarily implement that recommendation. However, it would be a concern that sports bodies are not represented on that group and have not been consulted.”

While it is known that there are concerns among the major sporting organisations that their views are not represented directly on this steering group, other observers feel there is an onus on the steering group to produce hard evidence to support any recommendations to remove the sponsorships.

In addition, those against the removal of the sponsorship cite the existing legislation which governs alcohol advertising and sport, which is regarded as among the most stringent in Europe.

The news could not come at a worse time for sporting bodies. The FAI recently extended its deal with Diageo/Carlsberg, the indigenous provinces’ main competitions in rugby are sponsored by Magners and Heineken respectively, while in GAA Guinness’ sponsorship of the All-Ireland hurling championship is widely credited with revitalising the image of the game.

If any or all of those sponsorship deals were lost due to the recommendations of the steering group, the major sports’ governing bodies would take a huge financial hit and, in the current climate, would certainly struggle to replace such blue-chip sponsors.

However, a blanket ban on alcohol sponsorship would carry far wider implications. GAA, soccer and rugby teams at the lower levels, which are often sponsored by local bars and restaurants, would also have to give up those sponsorship arrangements.

“All sporting bodies have articulated how important sponsorship has been in bringing sport to where it is today in the country,” says the source close to the steering group.

“In the current climate, where there are already government cuts, another loss of funding would be potentially catastrophic and hugely damaging.

“There is no hard evidence to suggest these deals are doing any harm, and there could be a negative health impact for Ireland if there is less sport available to people because of cuts in sponsorship.”

As stated, even if the steering group were to recommend such a radical step, there is a lengthy period between a recommendation being made and that suggestion acquiring the force of law, a period of time in which one could expect strenuous lobbying against the measure on the part of the sports bodies and the alcohol industry.

The government established a steering group to develop alcohol policies for a National Substance Misuse Strategy to cover the period to 2016, and this group, jointly chaired by the Departments of Community, Rural & Gaeltacht Affairs and Health & Children, comprising representatives of the key statutory, community, voluntary and industry sectors, is expected to issue its recommendations in the coming weeks.

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