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Sport under the influence

1 Feb 2011
Keri Welham
This article was published 13 years ago. Content may no longer be relevant.

Alcohol industry sponsorship has been a gold mine for sport in New Zealand, so much that many clubs say they couldn't survive without it. But what has been the cost to the codes, the players and the general public of alcohol's high profile wherever we compete?

Sponsoring and responsibility

Sport and alcohol have long stood hand in hand. Across the country, sports clubrooms have been the social glue of many a community. Friendships have developed and deepened as Kiwis have won, lost and then drunk together.

Keri Welham explains as New Zealand’s binge-drinking culture has grown ever more unsophisticated, the relationship between alcohol and sport has thrown up some uncomfortable truths.


There’s a fair bit of evidence suggesting alcohol sponsorship has encouraged hazardous drinking practices among both players and spectators in sport.

New Zealand Cricket Chief Executive Justin Vaughan drew attention to this when he spoke out about the behaviour of drunken New Zealand fans at a Bledisloe Cup match in Australia last year.

“That’s not how sport should be. It should be pleasurable for everyone,” he said.

He was also quick to point out the behaviour was not code-specific. Kiwi spectators have been known to turn ugly watching a variety of sports.

Vaughan’s comments came as public outrage surfaced over drunken chaos at a Rugby League International at Eden Park where heavily intoxicated fans invaded the pitch, threw bottles onto the field and booed during the national anthems. With this year’s Rugby World Cup looming, sports administrators are cringing at the potential for international embarrassment at the hands of hammered Kiwi fans.

Increasingly, the spotlight is falling on alcohol sponsorship in sport. What message does it send children when booze brands are emblazoned on the shirts of their sporting heroes? What does it do to a sporting community when the club must sell a sponsor’s product to fundraise?

Prominent sports commentator Richard Boock addressed this issue in the Sunday Star-Times in May 2010, saying the alcohol sponsorship ban was one of the best initiatives in the Law Commission’s suite of recommendations.

“It would at least put an end to one of the seediest aspects of our community; the use of sport to promote boozing to kids,” he wrote.

Of course, this is not just an issue making headlines in New Zealand.

In 2009, for example, the British Medical Association called for a complete ban on alcohol advertising and sponsorship following the release of Under the Influence, a report showing the significant impact of alcohol marketing on harms associated with drinking.

In fact, around 260 non-governmental organisations from 43 countries have endorsed a Global Resolution to End Alcohol Promotion in World Cup events. While this shows a widespread focus on reducing the use of high-profile sports to promote alcohol products, the campaign does not cover the practice of providing sportspeople with free or discounted alcohol and/or financial assistance, which may even be a more direct and influential form of sponsorship.

Sport and Recreation New Zealand (SPARC) estimates that total alcohol advertising and promotion (not just in sport) ranges from $73 million to $165 million per year. It says New Zealand has a problematic drinking culture but that it’s unclear whether alcohol misuse is worse in sports than in wider New Zealand society.

According to the Law Commission report, by the early 1990s, more than half of all alcohol advertising expenditure was in forms of promotion other than broadcast advertising.

Kiwi researcher Dr Kerry O’Brien, now based at Melbourne’s Monash University, has become a leading researcher on alcohol industry sponsorship and drinking in sports.

In one of the many journal articles he has co-authored with his Australian colleague Kypros Kypri, he writes, “Sport is not only being used by the alcohol industry to encourage drinking among sportspeople and fans, it is also the primary vehicle for alcohol-industry marketing to the general public. For example, reports from the US show that, for the first 6 months of 2009, Anheuser-Busch, one of the world’s biggest alcohol producers, spent more than US$194 million or around 80 percent of its US TV advertising budget on sport. That is a staggering amount and indicates the centrality of sport as a marketing tool for alcohol sales.”

Elsewhere, O’Brien and Kypri write, “Alcohol industry sponsorship of sportspeople, and in particular the provision of free or discounted alcoholic beverages, is associated with hazardous drinking. Sports administration bodies should consider the health and ethical risks of accepting alcohol industry sponsorship.”

Research shows heavy binge drinking is particularly harmful and is more common among adults who play or watch sport, where it is also associated with other risky behaviours, such as drink-driving, unprotected sex and violence.

In a paper published in 2008, O’Brien and Kypri sought to understand whether direct alcohol sponsorship of sportspeople – through pubs, hotels, breweries or liquor stores – was associated with the drinking behaviour of those athletes. The study involved 1,279 New Zealanders participating in 14 different team and individual sports. They ranged from grassroots to elite international level.

Of those surveyed, 47 percent received free or discounted alcohol as part of their sponsorship package. While 59 percent of those sponsored received only three free drinks or less, 10 percent received 16 or more units of free alcohol at each team session.

Of the sportspeople receiving alcohol industry sponsorship, 26 percent felt they should drink their sponsor’s product and/or drink at their sponsor’s premises.

When the alcohol industry sponsors a team or individual, it may do so by offering one or some of the following: free or discounted alcohol after matches or practice, payment of competition fees and travel costs, cash and provision of equipment and uniforms with the sponsor’s name, logo or brand.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, sportspeople given free or discounted alcohol are shown to drink more than those given non-alcohol items as sponsorship, such as uniforms.

O’Brien and Kypri write, “The expectation conveyed is that sportspeople are obliged to look after their sponsor; to frequent the sponsor’s pub and to drink the product after matches, practices and on other occasions. At the more social levels of sport, this typically means team mates, partners and friends will gather at the sponsor’s premises to drink and repay the sponsor’s ‘generosity’.”

While O’Brien and Kypri’s 2008 research was compelling, the alcohol industry argued it did not produce robust evidence of causation. O’Brien says this is a similar tactic used by the tobacco industry during the ‘tobacco wars’ but now adapted for the alcohol debates.

“There it was claimed that, because randomised controlled trials (a proposed gold standard for evidence) were not conducted to test the impact of tobacco smoking on humans, you couldn’t infer it was actually smoking that was leading to the increased mortality and morbidity.

“But I think everyone would agree it would be completely unethical to require a group of non-smokers to smoke cigarettes every day for years on end in order to find out whether cigarettes really do harm you.“

He says governments eventually moved to shut down tobacco sponsorship without the same level of proof the alcohol industry is now demanding.

In a 2009 editorial in Addiction, Kypri, O’Brien and colleague Peter Miller argue, “Where evidence is lacking, policy makers should adopt the precautionary principle that recommends taking preventive action in the face of uncertainty and shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of the activity. For alcohol, as for tobacco, sponsorship of sport enables companies to promote their products to vast audiences of all ages, with few if any substantial constraints and all the benefits of association with healthy activities and sporting heroes. It should not be left to the public to demonstrate that alcohol industry sponsorship is harmful but, rather, it should be up to the proponents of the activity, i.e. the alcohol industry, to show that the practice is harmless. In the meantime, government should prohibit the practice in the interest of reducing unhealthy alcohol use.”

It is almost a year since the Law Commission released a set of recommendations for liquor law reform (April 2010).

The Law Commission’s report, Alcohol in Our Lives: Curbing the Harm, reflected on the content of the 2,939 submissions to its liquor licensing review. It said almost every submitter – 2,281 of them – had something to say about advertising and sponsorship, with 86 percent supporting banning or restricting all alcohol advertising in all media.

Alcohol advertising in New Zealand is self-regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority – an industry-based body. Brand advertising has been allowed since 1992.

As well as concern about overt advertising, such as that which promotes a particular brand, the Law Commission says there were also many submissions specifically concerning alcohol sponsorship.

One read, “There is presently an intimate association of alcohol with sporting activity just as there once was between tobacco and say, motor sport. It is not just direct advertising and brand promotion. It is a thread that runs through the media. Casual references, for example, to ‘tying one on’ are commonplace on radio sporting talkback; that getting plastered in connection with a sporting event holds fond memories.”

The Commission noted that marketing strategies, such as alcohol sports sponsorship, embedded images and messages about alcohol into young people’s everyday lives.

Researchers have noted it is the newer and more insidious forms of marketing that are likely to be most influential on adolescents – the internet, mobile phone messages, merchandising and social networking sites as well as sports and festival sponsorship such as the Heineken Tennis Open, surfing’s Export Gold Series and the Jim Beam Home Grown concert.

The Law Commission says the evidence linking drinking with advertising and sponsorship is compelling, particularly with regard to young people, but it does not support an alcohol advertising or sponsorship ban.

“We believe the available evidence does not justify a recommendation for a total ban on alcohol advertising and sponsorship at this point. Unlike tobacco, it is possible to consume alcohol at low-risk levels… However, the contribution of alcohol to adverse health outcomes and to crime and the links between advertising, sponsorship and consumption of alcohol must continue to be monitored.”

A controversial French alcohol policy law, Loi Évin, was passed in 1991. It attempts to restrict both the content of alcohol advertising, and the population’s exposure to that advertising.

The Law Commission summarised the impact of the Loi Évin as follows:

  • All drinks over 1.2 percent alcohol by volume are considered alcoholic beverages.
  • No advertising should be targeted at young people.
  • No advertising is allowed on television or in cinemas.
  • No alcohol sponsorship of cultural or sport events is permitted.
  • Advertising is permitted only in the press for adults, on billboards, on radio channels (under precise conditions) and at special events or places such as wine fairs or wine museums.
  • When advertising is permitted, its content is controlled. Messages and images may refer only to the qualities of products such as degree, origin, composition, means of production and patterns of consumption. Court decisions have led to no use of images of drinkers or depiction of a drinking atmosphere.
  • A health message must be included on each advertisement to the effect that “alcohol abuse is dangerous for health”.

Despite widespread controversy, the Loi Évin has withstood robust legal challenges. The European Court has ruled that, “Such a ban constitutes a restriction on the freedom to provide services, but is justified by the aim of protecting the public.”

The Loi Évin’s opponents deplore the provision that forbids French broadcasters from showing alcohol brands on athletes’ clothing and sports stadium hoardings – prohibiting the broadcast of some foreign sporting events where these marketing techniques are used. However, the Law Commission said it received many submissions suggesting New Zealand model any liquor law reform on the Loi Évin.

Meanwhile, the British government last year banned promotions that encourage irresponsible drinking such as drinking games, speed drinking, women drink for free, all you can drink for £10 and the dispensing of alcohol directly into a person’s mouth. The Health Committee of the House of Commons has reported back on its inquiry into alcohol with a set of recommendations designed to restrict advertisers’ influence on children.

Recommendations included a 9pm watershed for television advertising, no posters or billboards within 100 metres of a school and no alcohol promotion on social networking sites.

O’Brien and Kypri’s research has met with particularly fierce resistance from powerful alcohol industry lobby groups in the United Kingdom. O’Brien says sports administrators are sending mixed messages to participants and fans.

“On the one hand, they embrace and peddle alcohol via their sport, while on the other, they punish individual sport stars and fans when they display loutish behaviour while intoxicated.”

He says sports administrators have to take responsibility for the role they play in encouraging problematic alcohol consumption through their willingness to accept alcohol sponsorship dollars.

This is a view shared by Progressive Party leader Jim Anderton. In a speech in March 2010, Anderton said All Blacks games and summer cricket “drip in alcohol promotion”.

“But we act surprised when Black Cap Jesse Ryder or All Black Jimmy Cowan get into trouble when they’re out on the booze. The community vilifies them, rather than vilifying the alcohol companies who sponsor the games and encourage young New Zealanders to go out and drink to excess. That’s why I believe one of the most effective changes we could make is to reduce or ban alcohol advertising, particularly at sports games.”

In an opinion piece in The Australian last November, Brent Read wrote of Canberra Raiders star Joel Monaghan, who was under the influence of alcohol when he decided to engage in a sex act with a dog to play a prank on a team mate. The Raiders’ sponsors include Local Liquor, which The Australian reports has 250 outlets across Australia.

“In one breath, Canberra takes money from an organisation that makes millions out of selling alcohol. In another, it sanctions a player who committed a vile act while under the influence of that very product.”

New Zealand Rugby League Chief Executive Jim Doyle is determined to find alternatives to alcohol sponsorship but stops just short of saying he’d never sign a booze sponsor again.

“You never say never. Our preference is never. We’ve been approached by a few, and we’ve turned them down. We'll certainly try and avoid [alcohol sponsors].”

He acknowledges this is easier at a national level, where other sponsors are in the wings. But many of the clubs are still stuck in arrangements with brewers who give them slabs of beer to sell as a fundraising mechanism in exchange for naming rights or other publicity.

“If all it does is give them truckloads of beer, and then to get cash, they have to promote everybody drinking lots of it, it’s not a good thing,” Doyle says.

Through an innovative incentive system, clubs currently reliant on the alcohol industry are being encouraged to look for alternative sponsors.

A paper prepared by SPARC late last year revealed 43 percent of sports clubs surveyed felt a ban on alcohol-related sponsorship would have a large or very large impact on them. One small rural rugby and netball club said, “Quite honestly, we would not survive if our finance through either the bar or through sponsorship from alcohol was taken away from us.”

O’Brien says the alcohol industry uses sponsorship as a form of marketing and advertising and, in doing so, bypasses regulatory barriers that prohibit alcohol advertising on TV at certain times and during certain programmes when children are likely to be viewing.

“These alcohol marketing strategies need to be viewed in the same light as tobacco sponsorship, with regulation to match.”

O’Brien would like to see better funding streams for sports, particularly those that have been for so long in the shadow of industry sponsorship, such as cricket and rugby in New Zealand.

“Ring-fencing money from current alcohol taxation specifically for sport and other healthy physical activities or even increasing alcohol taxation slightly to fund sports would likely result in considerably more funding than is currently being provided by the government and alcohol industry combined. These funds could then be allocated without alcohol industry involvement or branding through an independent funding body to individual sports organisations, clubs, teams or individuals. Not only could this enable more even distribution of funds and stability of funding, it would also eliminate the relationship between sports clubs and the alcohol industry.”

And there’s another consideration. Some co-sponsors may decide they don’t want to risk association with a sportsperson’s drunken indiscretions. O’Brien says the time may be coming when sponsors outside the alcohol industry choose to walk away rather than share the line-up with a booze brand and risk any potential alcohol-related public relations fall out.


Sports stars on the booze


New Zealand cricketing sensation Jesse Ryder swore off alcohol for good early in 2009 after he cut his hand smashing a toilet window in Christchurch during a 2008 post-match drinking binge. He then missed a team meeting in Auckland and was subsequently unable to train following a drinking session in Wellington.


Commonwealth Games cyclist Liz Williams complained after two team mates reportedly attempted to strip her and urinate on her in the Melbourne Games village in 2006. When asked how drunk she and her team mates Marc Ryan and Tim Gudsell were, Williams said she didn’t know. Williams’s mother, Patricia Williams, told NZPA at the time there was a huge amount of alcohol involved and “the whole culture needs to be changed so it’s safe for the girls.”

Rugby league

Former Canberra Raiders league player Todd Carney had his $400,000-a-season contract torn up in 2008 and was banned from his New South Wales home town, Goulburn, after a string of alcohol-fuelled indiscretions. Among the headlines were tales of him urinating on pub patrons and jumping on a car bonnet and smashing a shop window in Goulburn. He received a 12-month suspended sentence.

Carney was ‘rescued’ by Atherton Roosters President Mick Nasser, who gave him two jobs: one on the field for the small club earning $40 a win; one behind the bar in Nasser’s hotel earning $20 an hour.

“I copped a lot of criticism for putting him in the pub, but it tends to jerk people into gear,” Nasser told reporters. “They see how people react to alcohol.”

Last year, a sober Carney was signed by the Sydney Roosters, made the Kangaroos and was named International Player of the Year.

Rugby Union

There have been a number of rugby union stars embroiled in alcohol-related scandals over the years, from former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga hitting team mate Chris Masoe over the head with a handbag in a Christchurch bar in 2006 to team mate Doug Howlett’s 2007 arrest for criminal damage after cars were vandalised outside a London hotel.

In 2009 alone, Hurricanes rugby wing David Smith was convicted of drink-driving, Hurricanes player Dane Coles admitted abusing Police during a drunken scuffle, Auckland Blues player Taniela Moa was ordered to undergo alcohol counselling after a bottle was thrown at a female in a rugby club, as was Highlanders player Fetu’u Vainikolo after a similar incident where he threw a drink at a woman. Meanwhile, Toulouse player and former All Black Byron Kelleher was arrested and spent the night in a Police cell after being involved in a drunken brawl following a traffic accident.

Last year, All Black and Chiefs player Sione Lauaki pleaded guilty to his third assault charge in 4 years after what was reported as another ‘late-night incident’ in a bar. In 2008, current All Blacks halfback Jimmy Cowan faced a New Zealand Rugby Union misconduct hearing and underwent alcohol counselling after three arrests in 3 months for disorderly conduct.


Commonwealth Games silver medallist Daniel Bell was sent home from India last year for breaking Swimming New Zealand’s zero-tolerance alcohol protocol. Bell had “a couple of beers” after the swimming meet finished and was sent home immediately, NZPA reported at the time. It was the third time in the past 2 years Bell had been involved in an alcohol-related incident while overseas with a New Zealand team. Team mates Dean Kent, Corney Swanepoel and Cameron Gibson were expelled from the 2008 New Zealand Olympic team and the Beijing Olympic village after taking a photo of a drunk Bell sitting on the toilet at a social function, and in 2009, Bell was admitted to hospital in Rome suffering from excessive alcohol intake following the completion of the World Championships.


Our culture of sporting excess

Kiwis admire their sporting men and women as heroes, and for years, this has also meant celebrating the robust ability of many of them to down the drink. But after several high-profile and embarrassing cases involving athletes and alcohol, many are beginning to question the place alcohol plays in our sporting culture. Could things be changing for the better? Keri Welham


New Zealand Rugby League Chief Executive Jim Doyle is the first to acknowledge the downfalls of New Zealand sport’s boozing culture, and says both players and fans are an “at-risk” community. But he says league is hoping to lead the way as a responsible, progressive sport committed to building both great players and great people with sound communityminded values.

Working with the tagline ‘More than just a game’, Doyle’s team are refashioning their approach to building future stars. Camps for talented young players now feature a dual focus: improvement on the field and improvement off the field. Alcohol, Doyle says, has a negative impact on both.

New Zealand Cricket Chief Executive Justin Vaughan, a medical doctor, has seen a change in drinking culture since his days as an international cricketer in the 1990s.

“Our players play a lot more [and are] a lot more professional. It’s no longer acceptable for guys to go out and get a skinful the night before [a match].”

He says sometimes sports stars, such as cricket’s Jesse Ryder, fall short of public expectations through events fuelled by alcohol. This, Vaughan says, reflects the rest of the community where such incidents also befall other young men.

“If all cricket players were viceless individuals, that just wouldn’t connect with the community. Like it or not, they have a role model tag around them.

“I’d like to think Jesse will continue to improve, [but] there are no guarantees around that, absolutely not.”

In a 2007 study of 1,214 Kiwi sportspeople aged 18 and over, lead-authored by New Zealander Kerry O’Brien, academics from three Australasian universities found hazardous drinking behaviours differed across levels of sporting participation. Elite provincial sportspeople were most inclined to drinking in a hazardous way, followed by club/social sportspeople, and elite international sportspeople displayed the lowest levels of hazardous drinking.

The report referenced a 1998 study that illustrated higher rates of binge drinking among the leaders of sports teams than in sports team members themselves. In turn, sports team members were more likely to report binge drinking than non-athletes. The same 1998 research confirmed sportspeople experience significant pressure from team mates and coaches to drink together to increase team cohesion and bonding, while other research has suggested sportspeople use alcohol to cope with the stresses of competition and demands on their time and energy.

Another Australasian study led by O’Brien was released in 2008 and focused on identifying differences in the way male and female sportspeople drink. It found “coping motives” were a more significant predictor of hazardous drinking in females than males. Across both sexes, hazardous drinking among sportspeople at New Zealand universities was high, with 46.3 percent reporting binge drinking and 35 percent reporting frequent binge drinking.

There are abundant tales of highprofile sports stars breaking laws or moral codes, heaping embarrassment on their families and their sport. In 2007, when Western Force players Scott Fava and Richard Brown were fined $11,000 and $5,000 respectively after being found guilty of animal abuse during a team bonding session, Force coach John Mitchell said, “They won’t be the only boys or only team this year that has a problem with alcohol. It’s generally in most clubs.”

Mitchell himself was criticised for allowing a troublesome drinking culture to develop when he was All Blacks coach. Former hooker Anton Oliver, in a 2005 tell-all book, revealed the team’s binge drinking culture “spiralled dangerously out of control” when 2003 coach Mitchell was at the helm.

“We had several young men in the team, and I thought, ‘We are teaching them that this is what it is to be an All Black, to drink a lot of booze’.”

Oliver said he began to address his discomfort with the drinking culture when he received a letter from one of his young fans who had been too afraid to approach the drunken rugby star in a restaurant because “of my profane language and generally poor behaviour”.

Oliver writes that he burned with shame when he read the letter and carried it around with him for 3 months.

Other research by O’Brien and colleagues in Australia found that young people think their friends probably drink significantly more than themselves and that sports stars probably drink significantly less. Overestimating the amount another person drinks has been shown to result in heavier drinking. Thus, in this study, young people illustrate that they may be more influenced by their perceptions of how much their friends drink.

The Australian Drug Foundation is attempting to sever the ties between sports clubs and a binge-drinking culture with its Good Sports programme, launched in 2000. The initiative offers three levels of accreditation to reflect how advanced a club is with its practices and policies involving alcohol. Clubs are assessed on factors such as how well their staff enforce liquor laws, provision of safe transport options and whether they have worked to establish funding streams other than grants from the alcohol industry. It is hoped the programme will show community sport can survive without booze.

Clubs with accreditation have lowered their rates of risky drinking, violence and drink-driving. Contrary to the concerns of many sports clubs, which worry they will not survive without alcohol sponsorship, the head of the Good Sports programme, Carolyn Watts, says breaking the link between alcohol and sport increases revenue.

Watts told the Sydney Morning Herald that, if a club has a boozy culture, the rest of the community don’t want to join in.

‘’Women don’t want to come along to those clubs; they don’t want to bring their children and have them surrounded by that sort of behaviour, and good players don’t want to go to clubs that have a boozy culture because it shows they don’t take their sport seriously.”

Research shows that, once a sports club reaches level 2 accreditation in the Good Sports programme, club membership increases on average by 42 percent, and the number of women visiting the club grows by 24 percent.

Watts says changing a culture that associates sporting celebrations with alcohol can be achieved by simple measures such as offering food, ensuring soft drinks and low-alcohol beer are available and abolishing all-you-candrink nights and alcohol as prizes.

“The clubs that have problems generally have a boozy culture dominated by a certain group of men, and that culture just doesn’t work any more.’’

New Zealand Rugby League has launched a programme with a similar focus. Jim Doyle and his team are rolling out a nationwide club development programme where each of the 138 affiliate clubs will be assessed, ranked and given red, amber or green status. One of the criteria for reaching green accreditation, the most desirable status, will be banning alcohol on the sideline. As an incentive, green clubs will get gear such as tackle bags, cones and balls. Where many football grounds have goalpost bolsters emblazoned with alcohol brands, green clubs will be given bolsters to wrap around their goalposts that say ‘Ease up on the drink’. The bolsters are one initiative that has grown out of a 3-year agreement between NZRL and the Alcohol Advisory Council (ALAC).

“For a culture change, it takes years,” Doyle says. “In some parts of the country [these] moves are more popular, in others, less popular.”

Porirua’s St George Rugby League Club has already banned alcohol on the field and in the changing rooms at its home ground, Cannons Creek Park. St George has also stopped hosting rowdy after-match functions in its local bar following every game, choosing instead to host just a handful of select social events throughout the season. Some individuals still go for an aftermatch drink, but the tradition of clubendorsed weekly drinking sessions has been broken. The club hasn’t yet been assessed for green accreditation.

Chair Taima Fagaloa says the sideline alcohol ban was implemented from the start of the 2010 season, and at first, visiting teams were unsure of whether the club was serious.

“We found we had to be consistent with the approaches and the messages,” Fagaloa says. “We knew this was going to take time to implement, and we had to ensure we were seen to be encouraging and not dictatorial. Eventually, we could see less presence of alcohol post-match.”




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