Australian cricket's decision to renew its sponsorship agreement with KFC, centred principally on the domestic Twenty20 competition, did not attract much comment last month. Like a piece of fried chicken passing the lips of a hungry customer, it went down well for a financially famished Cricket Australia, shoring up dollars to push the expanded Big Bash League next summer, while also adding to the bottom line for international T20 matches and, at times, grassroots cricket.
Yet the continued relationship between Australian cricket and a subsidiary of the world's largest fast food conglomerate, Yum! Brands, requires closer inspection. In a nation where one in four children is overweight or obese, and where the clamour for government regulation of "unhealthy" advertising towards children is growing, KFC's union with T20 has become increasingly curious.
No one can question that cricket is in a scrap for money; CA has cited an ever more competitive sponsorship market for its choice of KFC to complement other corporate sponsors. But the link between a fast-food giant and the form of the game marketed most aggressively towards juniors is causing plenty of furrowed brows among health experts and, privately, players.
On the day that CA announced the renewal of the deal, a study was published by the Australian Medical Journal that investigated the proliferation of television fast-food advertising towards children. Its purpose was to determine whether self-regulation since 2009 had made any impact on the amount of advertising directed towards children.
The period covered - April 2009 and May 2010 - showed that there had been no decrease in the amount of advertising during children's time slots. The use of advertising that - to employ Australian slang for a pushy sale - spruiked the food was aided and abetted by an increase in brand-heavy advertisements that did not feature products directly. In keeping with this trend, last summer's cricket broadcasts were speckled with advertising that featured an actor playing Colonel Sanders.
Kathy Chapman, the nutrition program manager for the Cancer Council New South Wales and a co-researcher in the AMJ study, said associations such as KFC's with cricket in Australia, and T20 in particular, have been shown to have an empirical impact on children's perception of fast food companies, and in turn their desire to partake in their products.
"We are involved with Sydney University on other research, which is actually looking at children's perceptions of who sports sponsors are," Chapman told ESPNcricinfo. "About two thirds of them say that they think the companies that sponsor their sports are cool companies. They think they're doing it for the good of the sport.
"We want kids to eat broccoli, but we don't just want them to eat broccoli three meals a day. Life is about leading a balanced, intelligent, enjoyable, well-rounded approach, and cricket encourages that"
Cricket Australia spokesman Peter Young speaks for fast-food sponsorship in sports
"About 60% of them said they'd like to return the favour by buying their product. So we certainly have got data from children showing it is having an impact, that they see whoever is sponsoring their sport, they're regarding them in a positive light and when we're seeing more and more of these companies being the ones that are unhealthy, that's really bad.
"It is much less regulated and they [fast-food companies] think it is giving them that little bit of armour against being criticised by groups for being associated with children and also with sports that are popular with children. It really is a powerful way for them to have their message carried across, especially when you look at the branding on the clothes and things like that - that's going to have such a big impact as opposed to just seeing an ad on TV."
As a signatory to the Australian Quick Service Industry Initiative for Responsible Advertising
and Marketing to Children, a self-regulatory agreement signed in 2009, KFC likes to present itself as among the most responsible of fast-food advertisers. Yum! Brands declares in its statement on responsible advertising that it will not advertise directly to children, and that it considers parental responsibility "to be the main determinant of children's dietary needs and nutritional intake".
Such a position leaves T20 cricket as KFC's most obvious path towards the children's market. This is also the case in South Africa, where KFC mini-cricket is billed as "the first taste of cricket that aspirant young boys and girls are introduced to". At present, no other Test-playing nations have a major sponsorship agreement with a fast-food company.
The habitually outspoken Stuart MacGill is the only Australian player to have publicly stepped out of line about KFC. He revealed earlier this year that towards the end of his international career he flatly refused to participate in KFC advertising, having been told by fitness and coaching staff that he needed to lose weight. Privately, MacGill's unease is not isolated, and reflects the majority opinion within sport that athletes should not be used to promote fast food. Only 3.7% of 682 Australian athletes, swimmers, basketball players and rugby league players interviewed for a University of NSW study this year felt that elite sportspeople should promote fast food or alcohol.
CA has worn the criticism of health groups before, by those who opposed tobacco sponsorship before it was legislated out of existence in the mid-1990s, and by the more contemporary opponents of fast-food advertising. The view taken by cricket's administrators is that the money is sorely needed, and that there is nothing wrong with fast food in moderation.
"In terms of the relationship between sport, healthy lifestyles and KFC as a brand, we're absolutely, totally comfortable about that," said CA spokesman Peter Young. "There is significant concern about kids being less and less active than they used to be. If the BBL excites kids the way we think it will, one of the benefits is going to be more kids getting attracted to the game and more kids getting off the couch and running around outside.
"Our credo is that life should be about everything in moderation and a little of everything. When you look at their figures, the average KFC consumer is in their mid-20s and up. The average KFC consumer also consumes KFC once a month, and as part of a broader, balanced approach to life, that's a good thing.
"Life is not all about sack-cloth and ashes. Yes, we want kids to eat broccoli, but we don't just want them to eat broccoli three meals a day. Life is about leading a balanced, intelligent, enjoyable, well-rounded approach, and cricket encourages that."
Well-rounded is the right approach, but whether this is expressed in the marketing choices made by CA and KFC is questionable. Wall-to-wall advertising, which in past summers has heavily featured members of the Australian team, does not suggest the likelihood of KFC being consumed just once a month over the summer. Chapman pointed out that if Australian players consumed KFC at the rate suggested by the advertising, they would struggle to make it onto the field. The frustrated talent of the rotund Mark Cosgrove in domestic cricket is testimony to that.
"I don't think having KFC bombarded at you from every angle when you're watching for three hours when you're going to a T20 game is everything in balance or moderation," Chapman said. "These are the sorts of foods we should only be eating occasionally."
Paul Marsh, the chief executive of the players' association, believes the public should be allowed to make its own choices without too much government regulation of advertising. Marsh and Young agree that potential sources for sponsorship are thinner on the ground today than they were when the agreement with the tobacco company Benson and Hedges ended in 1996. That change brought a more rounded sense to Australian cricket's sponsorship, as airlines, alcohol and food companies took a larger share of the sponsorship load. KFC signed on with CA in 2003, and shrewdly grabbed for T20 as the most vibrant part of the market.
"In sport, by definition you can only have non-competing sponsors, so you can only have one from category A of commercial activity, one from category B, one from category C," Young said. "And there are a finite number of sponsorship categories. You can only have one car company, you can only have one alcohol company, you can only have one family restaurant company. The more categories you close down, the more difficult it is for sports to find the commercial support they need to put the game on the park. 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."
The gap left by tobacco was filled temporarily in some sports by government grants, but other companies stepped in over time. Chapman said that cricket had to consider the wider implications of its association with KFC, just as it did with tobacco, while also preparing for the possibility that government regulation may eventually squeeze fast food, just as it did cigarettes.
"Seeing the Australian team thinking about their next KFC meal while they're playing makes the kids that look up to these Australian players think 'That's the sort of thing I should be eating as well'"
Nutritionist Kathy Chapman is on the against side of the debate
"I would say now there are a lot of companies that would want to have their name associated with cricket, but just selling out to that highest bidder is not a good thing when you've got to think about the long-term implications for children," she said.
"Seeing the Australian team thinking about their next KFC meal while they're playing makes the kids that look up to these Australian players think, 'That's the sort of thing I should be eating as well.' When they're seeing messages about how juicy and crunchy it is, those are the sorts of things they are going to be asking their parents to buy for them on the way home from the cricket or while they're watching at home."
Coincidentally Australian cricket in 2011 does look rather like a customer who has lived on a diet of fried chicken. Two inquiries currently delving into the problems facing the Australian game and its slide from the top of the global rankings will be unlikely to look too closely at sponsorship as a central issue, but its symbolism is not insignificant.
In 1996-97 the West Indian tourists, on their way towards more than a decade of desperate results and infighting, took up a financially rewarding sponsorship with KFC in Australia. At the time many locals laughed at the association, particularly given the portly countenance of one or two touring party members. Fourteen years on and Australian cricket is intertwined with the same company. For CA's management, this is a necessity. "Yes our core revenue is from the media rights, but without sponsorship of major elite sport, the public doesn't get a game to watch, as simple as that," Young said.
"I think everyone agrees tobacco sponsorship was inappropriate, but if you go back to those days, the competition for sponsorship was fairly modest. These days it has become cutthroat. There are more and more sports and more and more community activities out there, competing for a finite sponsorship dollar."
The ball is presently in the court of the federal government, which is waiting out a period of self-regulation before deciding whether the relationship between fast-food companies and sport is as mutually beneficial as is claimed. Their decision will be the subject of more nail biting than finger licking.