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Alcohol advertising in football is a fairly prominent part of the game and has been for many many years. Liverpool’s famous sponsor is Carlsberg, just as Newcastle wore the star of their local Brown Ale, while in a different form, we’ve had the FA Cup with Budweiser, the Carling Cup and I’m (vaguely) aware of a competition from way back called the Watney Cup. It has been part of football for a long, long time.

I guess the first question we need to ask is ‘Why?’

For the teams who are emblazoned with a sponsor, it is obvious – they get paid to do so. Its something that you may notice not happening if you watch a lot of football. Certain countries don’t allow alcohol advertising, so teams have taken to the field in France, sponsorless, while other teams (my own, Huddersfield Town included) have taken the step of removing the alcohol company’s logo off the children’s version of the shirt.

There is a valid argument here that if you’re unwilling to let children advertise something, how can you allow adults to do so, but that’s a different question for a different day. I’m not here to tackle moral issues.

Indeed, I remember going to a game between Bolton Wanderers and Marseille, and there was no alcohol on sale in the ground at all.

The alcohol companies themselves only get involved to change, in a positive way, their brand awareness. Budweiser thought that the FA Cup was global enough entity that, while it may be one of the world’s iconic brands, affiliation with something as long-standing as the FA Cup would give the drink a certain status. There’s also cases of a new brand on the block that using football shirt to alert drinkers to their existence.

Certainly, I’d never heard of Vodka Kick before it started to appear on Barnsley and Chesterfield’s shirt, but to this day, I’ve never seen one on sale. Everton have advertised Chang in the past, which was new to the UK.

The VK sponsorship is one that I find intriguing. Inside football grounds, the general availability of alcoholic drinks is limited to lager, bitter and cider. If I wanted a gin and tonic, my thirst would go unslaked. The increasingly cosmopolitan times in which we live demand a wider range of beverages (have you been to a pub recently that just had lager, bitter and cider?) to choose from, yet football fans are not afforded that privilege unless they’re watching the game on television.

Following ‘why’, we’re left with looking at the after-effects of the sponsorship.

At the end of the day, it is true that alcohol consumption is causing problems in the UK, and all that goes with it is generally a bad thing. The increase in hospital use by those as a result of alcohol abuse is just the tip of the iceberg. However, drawing a link between Budweiser sponsoring the FA Cup and an increase in alcohol abuse seems a little far-fetched to me. The idea of alcohol sponsorship of sports is to gain a bigger share of the market, not to develop the market to include more people.

People, it is fairly apparent, are drinking anyway; their desire to consume alcohol is present long before the influence of advertising. The Budweiser sponsorship of the FA Cup is designed to make people choose the ‘King of Beers’ instead of a competitor (a Heineken, maybe) rather than to turn people who would have had coffee instead or, more pertinently, to convert children from cream soda and dandelion and burdock to an imported American lager.

I was swayed by the shirt sponsor on Huddersfield’s shirt last season. Mrs Marco and I were in a bar in London and I was confronted with the choice of two different ciders. I chose Rekorderlig because Brothers do not sponsor my club. I was going to buy her a cider anyway.

A lot of binge drinking that is visible in the town and city centres of the UK is not caused by the beer or cider brands that tend to associate themselves with football, but by the lesser spotted short drinks; the drinks that appeal to younger people not being the same as those that appeal to general football supporters (though Manchester Utd do have an affiliation with Casillero del Diablo and, rather wonderfully, an official noodle partner, too)

That said, it is reckoned by Ofcom that children are exposed to 3.1 alcohol adverts per week, up from 2.7 in 2007. That figure rising is a little worrying, but I’m not sure what percentage of those adverts are because of football.

The ASA, the people claiming alcohol sponsorship and advertising should be withdrawn, draw their evidence from a British Medical Journal post which, itself, claims that the research is accurate only ‘despite the above methodological concerns and despite the fact that not all studies found an impact for all the individual marketing exposures studied’. I’m only an amateur statistician at best, but that to me says “We had our outcome decided before we started and although a number of the experiments disagreed with it, we’re sticking to it’.

Don’t get me wrong; alcohol can be dangerous. Countless lives have been ruined as a result of misusing it, and countless lives have been ruined as a result of others misusing it.

However, making Chesterfield change their shirt sponsor from a vodka drink won’t save any lives. If people want to drink alcoholic drinks, they will do – the sponsors are simply appealing for a bigger audience share. Interestingly, Budweiser’s revenues have dropped during their affiliation with the FA Cup (though for the FA, their initiatives were a success) which is one of the reasons that association has finished.

Tackling the problem UK society has with alcohol is not going to happen as a result of stopping companies diverting customers from one product to another; it requires something a little more long-term. When cigarettes were targeted, there was  the grotesque spectre of second-hand smoke that could be used to ostracise smokers (not to mention the fact the being near smokers makes one’s clothes utterly reek) but alcohol is a very different beast. It makes no sense to ostracise drinkers, as there are so many studies proving that alcohol in moderation can be a good thing; the problem comes with the excess. That excess does not come about by Carling sponsoring the League Cup, it is a far deeper, and far more personal issue than that.

There is a secondary part to this question, too. If alcohol companies do not pay football clubs to represent them on their shirts, who will pay them?

Not everyone can represent UNICEF (Barcelona), Acorns (Aston Villa) or the Yorkshire Air Ambulance (Huddersfield Town); there comes a time when the revenue streams from sponsorship means that clubs will accept whatever offer comes their way. Bolton Wanderers took a creditable stand against a payday loan company, but you can bet (and plenty of bookies would be smacking their lips about alcohol firms coming out of that market, you can be sure of that) that somebody else; say, Blackpool, would see the amount of money over any responsibility to their fans.

All told, alcohol branding in football is not leading people to drink. It is leading to drink something different. Stamping out advertising alcohol wouldn’t kill the beast; it wouldn’t even bring it under control, it would just change its course slightly. Until evidence definitely proves anything to the contrary, I can’t get behind their appeal. Football fans are people, capable of making their own free choices.

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