How Australia turned around on sponsorship by alcohol brands
When reports emerged that Steve O'Keefe and James Pattinson had let things get out of hand at end-of season awards nights, earning the former a heavy fine and suspension for offensive behavior, it seemed a jarring throwback to another time in Australian cricket. That of David Boon's prolific flight to London ahead of the 1989 Ashes tour, or of the easy commercial relationship between cricket and alcohol that had gone up another level by the time the next tour rolled around, in 1993.
In capturing the mood of that second trip, so different that none other than Shane Warne wrote the foreword, Steve Waugh's first Ashes diary is littered with references to the Australian team's tour sponsor, XXXX. These include a moment when a rival brand sought to steal some thunder via ambush marketing at a warm-up match. It's a scene straight from The Paul Hogan Show, or perhaps the marketing mind of the entrepreneur John Singleton.
"At the game we witnessed firsthand the intense rivalry between beer companies in their quest to outdo each other and grab a bigger market share," Waugh wrote. "With XXXX being our sponsor, Foster's obviously will attempt to pull off some sort of stunt at any game they can. Today was no exception, with a Foster's hot-air balloon hovering just outside the ground and offering people free rides." Ian Healy is snapped with said balloon on the following page.
That Ashes tour, and the trip to New Zealand preceding it, were the first occasions that Australian touring teams walked onto the field with logos other than those representing the ACB on their uniforms, and it felt inevitable that alcohol would be the lucky product to get the nod. Twenty-four years on and Cricket Australia have signed a deal with Lion that will once again align XXXX with Australian cricket.
Yet the distance from those former days of jousting beer brands was summed up by a single line in the announcement: "The partnership does not include any branding of player clothing." In marking the new partnership, CA's chief executive James Sutherland and Lion's head of marketing Ben Slocombe seemed to go out of their way to talk in terms of moderation - unlike the previous deal with Carlton and United, this is a mid-strength agreement in more ways than one.
"Lion is one of Australia's largest food and beverage companies, with quality products and a well-deserved reputation for corporate responsibility," Sutherland said. "XXXX Gold is the number one mid-strength beer in the country and will be a great moderation choice for fans attending our games. Lion and Cricket Australia both have a relationship with DrinkWise Australia and we look forward to working collaboratively to promote a positive drinking culture at games."
Quoth Slocombe: "Mid-strength beers are a popular fixture in stadiums and other venues around the country, and we are proud to bring the No. 1 mid-strength in the country, XXXX Gold, to cricket fans to enjoy responsibly. Lion has invested for decades in mid-strength beers, which provide consumers with credible options to moderate consumption. Today one in four beers consumed in Australia are lower than full strength."
Clearly it is no longer desirable for CA to associate itself and its teams with alcohol beyond the safely moderated and focus-grouped variety. The cause for this effect can be tracked back nearly a decade, to the start of backroom conversations between cricket and the federal government about the sustainability of alcohol advertising. A generation before, the same conversations had been had about tobacco advertising, which finally disappeared from cricket grounds in 1996, when the board's final deal with Benson and Hedges expired.
The incongruity of sport alongside alcohol was a subject of discussion for several years. CA was made aware that eventually government regulation would be required to further restrict and even prohibit alcohol sponsorship of sport, with one condition attached: promotion of more responsible drinking at matches and around the team would help in delaying this process. CA was a signatory to a national strategy to deal with binge-drinking in March 2008.
So it was that in 2009, CA and the federal government worked together to launch the "Know When To Declare" community-awareness campaign. The prime minister then, Kevin Rudd, and the minister for sport, Kate Ellis, joined Sutherland for the announcement at the MCG during that year's Boxing Day Test against Pakistan. It was accompanied by advertising that featured the Richie Benaud and Tony Greig, plus Mitchell Johnson and Michael Clarke.
At the time Sutherland said: "We wanted to engage young men in a discussion about their drinking habits, and rather than preaching, research told us leveraging the sporting icons they know and respect would help to deliver a responsibility message." It was an approach that stated government desire for change but also safeguarded CA's lucrative sponsorship agreements with alcohol companies for years of future revenue.
This situation continued while CA engaged with other problematic sponsors such as fast food and betting companies. Eyebrows have been raised at times by the prominence of KFC in T20 - the format CA has used to push the game most aggressively towards children - after its parent company, Yum! Brands, made past statements on responsible advertising to the effect that it will not advertise directly to children.
CA's public position on alcohol, fast food and betting sponsorship has remained one of advocacy for moderation, as opposed to abstinence. As the board's former spokesman Peter Young said in 2011: "If you listened to the zealots and decided to pursue a slogan-based approach to this, you would say, 'Right, let's have no alcohol category, let's have no fast-food category, let's have no sports-betting category, no motor-vehicle category because of the carbon footprint and road-safety concerns...'
"Each time you take a category out it gets tougher, and you can't just say, as some have, 'If you get rid of fast food, just go and get yourself another car sponsor.' We've already got a car sponsor, bank sponsor, airline sponsor. Without sponsors there is no game on the park. If you kill sport, you kill the significant social and health benefits that sport brings to the table."
However, the issue was pushed forward by the former NSW premier Mike Baird at a fund-raising dinner for the Thomas Kelly Youth Foundation in September 2015, in a way that made it still more difficult for CA to allow alcohol in particular the sort of advertising space it valued: namely on the shirts of the players. Eighteen-year-old Kelly's death from a single punch in Kings Cross became a headline case for those campaigning to bring lockout laws to Sydney pubs, bars and clubs, and at the dinner, Baird aimed squarely at cricket as another area to address.
"I find it quite an incredible position where the captain of our cricket team sits there with a big VB on the middle," Baird said. "We all love the captain of our cricket team, but I find that an incredible position. Cricket Australia, to its credit, I have spoken to them specifically about this, and they have already taken moves."
That conversation was had at a time when the Test team had already moved on from alcohol sponsorship to the cleaner air of the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas. However, the VB iconography had remained fixed upon Australian 50-over uniforms to the point that pressure was brought to bear not only from an outside agent like Baird but also via Muslim members of the team.
It was Fawad Ahmed who in 2013 spoke in the negative when asked by CA whether he would be comfortable wearing the VB logo on his shirt, first for Australia A and then later that year on his ODI debut. He duly appeared in shirts minus the brand, attracting criticism that September from the likes of Doug Walters and David Campese for not accepting the uniform he was given.
The debate quickly veered into territory that now seems like a foreshadowing of 2017 - Brexit, Trump, Pauline Hanson and all. Campese's tweet read: "Doug Walters tells Pakistan-born Fawad Ahmed: if you don't like the VB uniform, don't play for Australia. Well said Doug. Tell him to go home." It all sounds so oddly familiar this year.
Yet in his strongly worded defence of Fawad, Sutherland hinted that alcohol sponsorship was going to need to change in nature sometime soon, if it was to remain at all. "Some people have used this issue to move away from the central debate," he said, "which is largely a commercial issue about sponsorship, and taken that into a space as to whether he is entitled to play cricket for Australia or live in Australia, and that is just rubbish. They are bigoted views."
An intriguing subplot to this episode was the effect it appeared to have on Fawad's fellow Australian Muslim Usman Khawaja, who had just played for Australia in that year's Ashes tour and worn the VB logo without any comment being passed. By the time he made a successful return to the Test and limited-overs sides in 2015-16, Khawaja had decided that he too did not wish to wear a uniform emblazoned with alcohol sponsorship, and so wore ODI uniforms devoid of them. It was emblematic of changing attitudes.
Similarly, Australian domestic cricket's commercial partnerships have also moved away from alcohol branding, to the point that two states - NSW and Western Australia - are sponsored by campaigns running a most contrarian view. The SpeedBlitz Blues have been for some years involved in anti-drink-driving advertising, while the "Alcohol. Think Again Warriors" have made for a jarring series of commercial confrontations with the XXXX Gold Bulls and the West End Redbacks.
WA's sponsorship was invariably a source of angst when the CA commercial and events teams arrived in Perth to rebadge the WACA Ground, and alcohol signage covered up warnings against the same products. Now the stage has been reached where CA's new alcohol sponsor must publicly declare its mid-strength, moderate virtues in order to provide an acceptable face for a commercial partnership. The era of the Foster's balloon has well and truly passed.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig