Most of Australia is currently in the grip of AFL footy finals fever. Within a few weeks, we will be witnessing the biggest event in the Australian sporting calendar – the AFL Grand Final. In 2017, the AFL grand final was the most watched television program in Australia for the fourth year in a row, with a viewing audience of just over 3.5 million people. In terms of 2017 game attendance, over seven million people attended AFL games (home and away and the finals series). By average attendance per game, the AFL is the fourth-largest league in the world (behind the American NFL, the German Bundesliga and the English Premier League) with an average game attendance of 34,003.
The popularity of the AFL Is undeniable, but what are the fans – both children and adults – being exposed to when they attend AFL games or watch the games on TV? A recent study published in the Australian New Zealand Journal of Public Health found that the AFL is saturated with unhealthy messages. The research team, based at the Public Health Advocacy Institute of WA, looked at the prevalence of sponsorship by alcohol, junk food and gambling companies on AFL club websites and on AFL player uniforms. The findings were used to produce an ‘AFL Sponsorship Ladder’ which ranked the AFL clubs from most to least unhealthy sponsors, using a traffic light system to categorise sponsors.
All 18 clubs were found to have at least one unhealthy sponsor, and it was concerning to find that alcohol companies sponsored 15 out of the 18 clubs, with beer company Carlton Draught and winemaker Wolf Blass being two of the biggest sponsors overall. The Carlton Draught logo appears prominently on the Brisbane Lions playing uniform.
So what’s the problem with children seeing these alcohol logos?
There is evidence that children associate sporting teams with the products and companies which sponsor the team. Long-term studies have shown that 12 year-olds highly exposed to alcohol advertising are 50% more likely to start drinking when they are 13, than those who are only slightly exposed. A 2017 study, which reviewed the literature on the association between alcohol marketing and youth drinking, found that there was a significant association between youth exposure to alcohol marketing and subsequent drinking behaviour. We also know that in 2014, almost half of all secondary school students aged 12 to 17 years had consumed alcohol in the year preceding the survey, 25% for the past month and 15% for the past week. So we really don’t need any more messages out there encouraging alcohol consumption.
In light of this, we have to ask why Australia’s most popular sport in terms of television viewing audience and game attendance is acting as a platform for alcohol companies to promote their products. The message being conveyed is that alcohol and sport are inextricably linked. When children see their AFL heroes wearing their uniform plastered with alcohol, junk food or gambling sponsors, they associate the brand with the player and the sport.
Alcohol sponsorship is legal in Australia, so it is not surprising to find that so many clubs are sponsored by alcohol companies. A loophole in the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice allows beer, wine and spirits to be advertised during sports programs before 8.30pm on weekends and public holidays, which is peak time for children television watching. There is clear evidence that public health policymakers need to continue to advocate for not only the phasing out of alcohol advertising during live sports but also the complete phasing out of alcohol sponsorship of sport. At the very least, clubs should remove the visibility of the unhealthy sponsor logos from their uniforms.
The AFL is in a unique position to influence the health of Australian children. Over 200,000 Australian children aged 5-12 were registered for the AFL’s Auskick program in 2017, suggesting that the AFL has done much to promote physical activity among children. It’s now time for the AFL to act on unhealthy sponsorship and seek out sponsorship arrangements in the interest of public good.