If aliens ever visit Earth, a great many things will puzzle them about our world, including Congress, print-at-home food, and Dennis Rodman. High on the list of Earthling oddities will likely be fit and disciplined athletes—the picture of health—who sell junk food and sugary drinks to fans whose diets are already making them fatter and sicker than ever.
We have basketball star Kobe Bryant selling Coca-Cola, quarterback Robert Griffin III peddling Subway sandwiches, and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt—the world’s fastest man—endorsing McDonald’s fast food. These days, it seems Big Food and spectator sports go together like French fries and ketchup.
Just look at the Super Bowl, where an advertisement for Doritos is followed by million-dollar spots for Budweiser, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola. Over the last decade, three of the top four companies spending the most on Super Bowl ads are food and beverage companies: Anheuser-Busch tops the list with an eye-popping $249 million spent between 2003 and 2012, followed by Pepsico in second, which spent $183 million. Not surprisingly, Coca-Cola is the fourth-biggest Super Bowl spender, forking over $81 million in the last ten years.
Coca-Cola’s influence, in particular, came into sharper focus last week when two of its executives were named among Sports Illustrated’s 50 Most Powerful People in Sports.
All this has some wondering how we got to a place where any corporate sponsor—not least ones that sell fatty and sugary food and drinks—wields that kind of power. And why sports teams and leagues—built on health and fitness—would link up with unhealthy food and drink sponsors. The answer for teams and leagues, of course, is fairly simple: money. For the brands themselves, it’s all about access to a team’s fan base, says Colleen Bee, assistant professor of marketing at Oregon State, who has studied sponsorship and advertising in sports.
“A lot of sports teams and leagues know who their consumers are,” Bee tells TakePart. “People have positive association with sports. Brands partner with sporting organizations because fans have these positive feelings with the sport, so those feelings transfer to the brands.”
In other words, food companies partner with sports organizations because it builds brand awareness, and as a result, boosts sales. Take the National Football League’s corporate partners, for instance. Each year, SportsBusiness Journal and SportsBusiness Daily publishes its NFL sponsor awareness survey, which gauges the effect the league’s corporate partners have on fans’ consumption.
In the 2013 survey, 62 percent of avid fans recognized Papa John’s as the official pizza of the NFL. A high percentage of these fans also said they were more likely to use a brand themselves and recommend it to others because the brand is a league sponsor. Meanwhile, we wonder how much pizza chief spokesman and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning throws back in a season? (We’re guessing not much.)
Brands have gotten more brazen with their sponsorship strategies as well. At the start of the 2013-14 National Basketball Association season, for example, fans could see corporate logos on the front of teams’ jerseys. (Imagine: a Lucky Charms leprechaun selling sugary cereal from every Boston Celtics jersey.) And in case you haven’t noticed, there’s a Major League Soccer club called the New York Red Bulls‚ named after the über-caffeinated, sickeningly sweet energy soda.
But while companies are spending more on sports in more strategic ways, Bee says she’s noticed an increasing body of research focusing on the effects—both positive and negative—these food and beverage sponsorships have on sports viewers. A study out of New Zealand found that junk food companies account for approximately one-third of sports sponsorships—many of which target children. These findings have led to the recent recommendation by health researchers that unhealthy food and beverage sponsors be restricted, much the same way many countries restricted tobacco and alcohol sponsorships in sports.
There’s even evidence that consumers may be tiring of the contradictions as well. During the 2012 Olympic Games in London, for instance, organizers and athletes drew sharp criticism from many who said the Games’ partnerships with Coke and McDonald’s was a gross conflict of interest. Many viewers saw great irony in being subjected to athlete-endorsed junk food advertisements minutes after seeing those same athletes competing at the highest level. Corporate team sponsorships bordered on absurdity; Team USA, for instance, was backed by both McDonald’s and 24-Hour Fitness.
In the age of soda bans and restricting marketing to kids, rolling back some of the more egregious junk food advertising in sports is not out of the question. But it’s an uphill battle, says Bee, because many people don’t categorize food the same way they do tobacco. Still, she says, anything’s possible.
“If you asked me 20 years ago whether tobacco sponsorships would ever go away, I would have said no,” she says. “But of course they were able to ban tobacco sponsorship. But it will definitely be a tougher one to change than tobacco.”
What do you think: Should sports teams and leagues be sponsored by junk food makers?
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