Drink Tank

Unhealthy sponsorship infiltrates all levels of sport

For the next few weeks, eyes will be glued to screens watching our elite sports stars at the Olympics.

It’s ironic that once again the main food and drink sponsors of the Olympic Games are the junk food giants Coca Cola, Cadburys, and McDonald’s.

Unhealthy sponsorship agreements infiltrate all levels of sport. We recently published a study that looked at the sponsorship of junior sports development programs and found that of the food and drink sponsors most were companies making unhealthy products.

McDonald’s takes the prize for connecting to the most sports and Little Athletics had the highest number of unhealthy sponsors. We found sponsors were providing branded welcome packs, branded uniforms or equipment, and some even had access to naming rights.

Junior development programs are modified versions of adult sports, set up to encourage participation and potentially a lifelong interest in that sport. Given the high rates of childhood obesity, children don’t need a lifelong bond with the junk food sponsor as well.

We know that children are influenced by food brands. Studies have shown children can recall sponsors connected to sport, they think sponsors are ‘cool’, and say they would buy a product to return the favour to sponsors.

The good news is that only four per cent of the sponsors examined in our study were unhealthy, which shows that most junior development programs don’t need unhealthy sponsorships in order to survive.

A previous study that looked at the umbrella sports of these development squads found ten per cent of sponsors were unhealthy food and beverage, alcohol, and gambling companies. There were no alcohol or gambling companies listed on the junior development websites. However, some development programs don’t have their own websites, so to find out about that program children would need to visit the umbrella sports program’s website. Worryingly, information about junior touch football in South Australia for instance sits on the main website and one of the main partners is an alcohol company.

Cancer Council is concerned about junk food marketing because it influences children’s food preferences, food choices and the food they buy or ask their parents to buy. Twenty-five per cent of children are overweight and obese, and are therefore more likely to grow up to be overweight or obese adults who are at greater risk of 11 different cancers. We’re also concerned about alcohol advertising because drinking alcohol increases the risk of developing cancers of the mouth, throat, oesophagus, stomach, bowel, liver, and breast.

Children and young people are particularly vulnerable to advertising. The sponsorship of children’s favourite sports by unhealthy food or alcohol companies undermines the healthy lifestyle messages that children hear at school, from their parents, and their sport coaches.

Cancer Council NSW would like to see the regulation of marketing to children include sport sponsorship. In the meantime, we want the sports organisations to say no to unhealthy food and alcohol sponsors and for the junk food and alcohol industries to leave sport alone.

Wendy Watson

Wendy Watson is a Senior Nutrition Project Officer at Cancer Council NSW. She has worked for six years on food policy projects, publishing on fast food, food labelling and food marketing to children. Wendy's work incorporates using advocacy to contribute to food policy debate. She manages the Junkbusters campaign, a Cancer Council NSW initiative to reduce exposure of children to junk food marketing. She previously worked for five years supporting schools to implement the NSW Healthy School Canteen Strategy. Wendy is a keen volunteer advocate, passionate about the power of people to make a difference.

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