Balancing public health safeguards and the promotion of alcohol in sports: a message in a bottle?

Sports clubs, leagues and associations find themselves at a crossroads. The pandemic has dried up their finances as well as a large proportion of the source of their income. However, the French Senate may offer them an unexpected solution: alcohol. At a time when some governments are seeking to mitigate the effects of the liberalisation of online betting advertising, a report of the French Upper Chamber characterises the promotion and sale of alcohol in sports venues as a windfall of additional income.

We take the opportunity to delve into the established links between sport and alcoholic beverages.

The Evin Law: advertising alcohol in sports

To many, alcohol and (watching) sports go hand-in-hand. For example, coverage of last month’s Super Bowl LV, which 96 million viewers tuned in to, featured adverts for various beer brands, tequila, vodka, liqueur and more.

However, France takes a different approach. Its Evin Law, introduced in 1991, aims to combat smoking and alcoholism through strict advertising regulations. The law notably bans sponsorship advertising involving any drink with an alcohol content of more than 1.2%. In addition, audio-visual content published by sports associations, companies and federations or professional leagues within the meaning of the French sports code may not promote alcohol. Finally, the sale of alcoholic beverages is in principle prohibited in all physical activity and sports establishments, including stadia.

A Senate report (published in February 2017) indicated that an amendment to the Evin Law, authorising (i) the sale of alcohol in stadiums; and (ii) the advertising of certain alcoholic beverages (including as shirt sponsors), could bring in between €30m – €50m in additional revenues for professional football clubs. In a subsequent report (published in July 2020), a Senate working group proposed to authorise the consumption and promotion of certain alcoholic beverages in stadiums as part of a two-year test. According to the report, this change would "help to encourage the return of fans to stadiums when the constraints on large gatherings are lifted and help clubs economically". The proposal has been shelved in light of the pandemic (football matches in France continue to be held behind closed doors for now), but it could appear on the legislator's table in the summer of 2021. Top of the agenda in the debate will be the all-important preservation of public health.

Safeguarding public health

The primary function of the Evin Law is to safeguard public health. Limiting the exposure of the public, in particular children and young adults, to alcohol, is seen as a means of preventing the risks of addiction that it can engender. This subject is dealt with in a dedicated chapter of the French public health code, entitled "Fight against alcoholism".

Sport, for its part, is promoted by the Ministry of Health for both its physical and mental health benefits. A national public health plan ("Eat, Move") was launched in 2001 to improve the health status of the population by addressing nutrition and physical activity.

The close connection between alcohol and sport is therefore not obvious from a strictly public health policy standpoint. However, the presence of brands of alcohol in sport and in stadiums is well-established. Notwithstanding the limitations imposed by the Evin Law, there are numerous ways in which alcohol can be – and has been – sold and promoted in a sporting context in France.

Authorised forms of advertising

First, sports associations are permitted to sell certain alcoholic beverages in sports and physical activity establishments up to 10 times a year, subject to the prior authorisation of the local mayor. The sale of alcohol is also permitted in the reception areas of stadiums (VIP areas, boxes, restaurants, etc.) where appropriate authorisations have been obtained by clubs.

Secondly, a large number of companies which produce or market alcohol sponsor sporting events, and appear on consumers’ screens during sporting competitions. This is because the Evin Law does not prevent an alcohol brand from sponsoring a competition: the prohibition pertains to mentioning this sponsor status in the context of commercial broadcast on French territory. This is why certain competition and tournament names, which include a reference to the sponsor alcohol brand, cannot be displayed during matches played in France, and had to be amended accordingly.

Reality dictates that the Evin Law cannot ensure that the French public is never exposed to alcohol brands in a sporting context. The territorial limits of the law are obvious where international sporting events are broadcast in France. In particular, billboards around a stadium promote all manner of businesses and products, including alcohol brands. Broadcasters responsible for the re-transmission of such events in France are bound by a code of conduct, under which they have a “best efforts” obligation to ensure that the viewing of such advertising is not encouraged, or even that it is prevented, depending on whether the sporting event is aimed directly at the French public (i.e. if it features a French national team or local icon).

Companies have accordingly sought to communicate with the public in innovative ways:

  • Some brands use slogans or signs that do not directly reproduce their trademarks;
  • By promoting alcohol-free products. For instance, during the Euro 2016 football tournament in France, Carlsberg focused marketing communications on its alcohol-free beer "Tourtel Twist", while at the same time marketing Carlsberg branded (alcoholic) beers in fan zones.

The conformity of these practices with French law has been subject to debate, as the French code of public health also prohibits "propaganda or indirect advertising”, i.e. advertising for products other than alcoholic beverages that “through its graphics, presentation, use of a name, trademark, advertising emblem or other distinctive sign, is reminiscent of an alcoholic beverage."

The Paris High Court had a say in the matter in 2014, adopting a strict interpretation of the provision which was favourable to alcohol-brand companies. Nevertheless, we can expect similar situations arising in the future to continue to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

A lifeline for clubs in financial distress

The proposal of the French Senate working group aims to attract funding from companies producing or marketing alcohol which are traditionally involved in the world of sport, in order for them to play a bigger role in its financing. The dire financial situation of a number of French professional clubs, impacted by the pandemic, the closing of stadia and, with respect to football, by payment defaults and broadcasters’ disputes, could well accelerate such proposals and the advent of a new communication rulebook for alcohol brands.

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