It has not taken long for Cricket Australia to take the lead in poorly handling the growing challenge from the health lobby to the sponsorship of sport by the alcohol industry.

The flippant, offhanded, way Cricket Australia has responded to the greatest challenge sport has faced since tobacco sponsorship and advertising were banned ought to ring alarm bells in the nation’s major sporting bodies.

Cricket Australia’s spokesman is reported as claiming “banning alcohol sponsorship would impinge on sport’s ability to deliver community programs that had a positive impact on health”. He went on to add elsewhere in rejecting any link between sponsorship by alcohol companies and increased drinking by cricketers that “we’re paid in dollars, not in schooners”.

The latter comment totally overlooks the fact that every time the national team is pictured drinking in the dressing rooms after a win (less often than usual these days) it is always the sponsor’s product! They might not be paid in schooners — but there is never any shortage of cartons!

The health lobby today must be fairly drooling at the politically inept way one of the major beneficiaries from alcohol sponsorship has responded to a serious challenge, prompted by a study — involving 1200 athletes — which make a link between alcohol sponsorship and heavy drinking by athletes.

The release of the study was quickly followed by a call from Queensland’s Chief Health Officer, Dr Janette Young, for alcohol advertising, including sports sponsorship, to be banned as a public health measure. You will have to take very short odds if you don’t believe other states will follow — and the Commonwealth may not be far behind.

If the major sporting bodies doubt the issue is a serious challenge, they need only look at the history of tobacco sponsorship. Twenty years ago it largely underpinned major sports — today it is history, having been phased out in a comparatively short time frame.

Potentially, the alcohol sponsorship of sport is as vulnerable, of not even more so. Every time the media reports on alcohol fuelled bad behaviour by sports stars — and it remains a weekly occurrence — the alleged link between sponsorship and drunken behaviour will be raised.

Unless the major sporting bodies take the challenge seriously, very seriously, they will soon find the pressures to limit alcohol sponsorship, and then ban it completely, will be very attractive to governments struggling with one of the growing social challenges of our time.

The major sports are all exposed to limits on alcohol sponsorship — especially rugby league and cricket. But rules and union are not far behind.

The one sport which is much less exposed that it used to be is horse racing — but it has headed down an equally hazardous track increasing its sponsorship by non-TAB gambling entities. Last week, the Melbourne Racing Club signed a major sponsorship deal with the part James Packer owned, Betfair — much to the chagrin of Tabcorp.

If the major sporting bodies allow the politically unwise comments by Cricket Australia to be the benchmark for the response to what is a serious challenge then the health lobby will step up its campaign — and the sponsorship of sport by breweries and the liquor industry generally will be really under the skids, if it is not so already.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey