April 21, 2017

How Australia turned around on sponsorship by alcohol brands

Cricket Australia's latest beer sponsorship will not feature any branding on players' uniforms, a change emblematic of the increasingly fraught relationship between alcohol and sport

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Logos on Australia team shirts over the years

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.

When you think of Australian teams celebrating a victory, it comes with images of them knocking back a few drinks © Fairfax Media/Getty Images

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."

Beer cups and assorted debris litter the Hill at Adelaide Oval, 2006. Cricket Australia is working with its alcohol sponsors to encourage spectators to drink in moderation at games © Getty Images

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.

Legendary drinker David Boon (with moustache) helps load barrels of XXXX lager on to a horse-drawn carriage in London, 1985 © Getty Images

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.

Security officials at the Gabba check soft-drink bottles for alcohol, 2015 © Getty Images

"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.

After the beer comes the beer snake © Getty Images

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.

Matthew Hayden signs a beer can, Worcester, 2005 © Getty Images

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • SEE on April 24, 2017, 9:38 GMT

    Cricketers are not just entertainers. They are individuals who have their personal values and beliefs. What is a "small" matter to me, might not be so to another. What matters is whether or not another person is trying to convince me that it is not. If one or two cricketers don't want to wear a certain label on their shirts because of religious or political reasons, that doesn't invalidate their commitment to their team and the game itself, nor, I imagine, does it do much damage, if any, to the earnings of the sponsors. It's not as if they are threatening to sue the cricket board or said sponsors because of their hurt feelings. More maturity, please.

  • SEE on April 24, 2017, 9:12 GMT

    It's certainly worth a debate whether alcohol brands should be sponsoring sporting teams and events. We have already settled the tobacco debate because it's a known health risk. Alcohol in moderation probably isn't, but nowhere do you see alcohol sponsors advocating that unless required by law to do so. Whether or not replacing alcohol with more neutral alternatives will hurt the revenue streams is a matter of debate. What is bizarre is the fact that this has turned into a political issue over the objection of a few players to wearing shirts that display the names of their team's alcohol sponsors. Is it not about playing for the country, and not for the sponsors, at least at the international level? Is wearing the baggy green with pride not enough to qualify as an Australian cricketer? Or is keeping your vintner overlords satisfied some kind of higher calling? Perhaps wearing "VB" across your chest is just another citizenship test? Whatever happened to freedom of expression? Cont.

  • Terry on April 22, 2017, 9:48 GMT

    I take it the Big Bash will continue to be sponsored by a certain fast food fried chicken purveyor? Its difficult when you try and make judgements about suitability of sponsors. Fast food? Childhood obesity Alcohol and tobacco? Health Sugar laden colas? Both of the above Airlines and cars? Climate change and pollution Banks? Toxic

  • rob on April 22, 2017, 3:39 GMT

    I'm no wowser but I've always thought it was somewhat ironic that sport was heavily sponsored by alcohol and tobacco companies. Strange bedfellows in many ways. Mind you, I'm a big fan of the beer adds. Many of the best commercials ever made have been beer ads imo. .. I think CA is doing the prudent thing here though. There is a definite back lash against alcohol fuelled public incidents in this country. Being too cosy with a beer company might alienate too many mums and dads to be worth it in the long run. We've gotta keep the kids coming into the game.

  • ReganR7710392 on April 22, 2017, 1:53 GMT

    The article doesn't answer the really important question: will Australia now wear cricket uniforms that actually look like cricket uniforms, or will the VB logo simply be replaced with some other (non-alcoholic) eyesore?

    @Johnthe Kiwi: Well said. Sick of sporting bodies and governments trying to engage in social engineering.

  • Arun on April 21, 2017, 22:34 GMT

    So now alcohol is no longer the spirit of cricket?

  • Procheta on April 21, 2017, 21:40 GMT

    Amla of course pioneered the trend in international cricket. These are personal choices, and as such, personal choices shouldn't be curtailed.

  • johnthekiwi on April 21, 2017, 13:45 GMT

    Oh please! Beer culture is part of life in NZ, Oz and the UK in particular. All the PC efforts in the world won't change that. The ridiculously high pricing may until the governments see the massive loss in tax revenue teetotalism will create (and no. There is no net 'health' saving anywhere in the west). I chose B & H and Winfield when I was growing up in NZ not because of ODI tournaments or Rugby League but because I liked them. I liked Rothmans too and chose Marlboros when I came to the US and it had nothing to do with the F1 drivers/teams I liked. I drank XXXX/VB/Swan/Tooheys when I could find them in NZ to supplement Lion Red and Steinlager. I never once associated any of the booze with any of the teams that they sponsored. If you believe that wearing a silly little logo on your shirt is a terribly wrong thing to do then it is quite simple-GO AND GET ANOTHER JOB! Do you think workers at fast food restaurants like wearing the uniforms they have? Utter snowflakery.

  • Cricinfouser on April 21, 2017, 7:20 GMT

    @cricfan83520084.. the reason is simple. its the alcoholic and tobacco companies that need to market their products aggressively whereas common food items are a given success with limited marketing. same is the case with cola drink's.

  • Shamil on April 21, 2017, 6:23 GMT

    Why is it that the items which conflict with sport are able to offer the highest sponsorship, making them hard to ignore by the sports administrators?

    For example, why can't a brand of Baked Beans or whatever the latest super-food brand is, match the numbers put forward by tobacco or alcohol sponsors? I would have thought the food industry would have higher advertising budgets than the alcohol industry.

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