Beer, sport, men: Inside the ‘Holy Trinity’ of alcohol marketing

Men have traditionally been the common link between sport and booze, but times are changing.

How did the world of sport start to revolve around alcohol? [Craig Brough/Action Images]

There is a great cultural irony in sports fans standing around commenting on the prowess of professional athletes while holding a beer in their hand, academic Lawrence Wenner wrote 30 years ago.

From podium celebrations with champagne to locker-room shenanigans and sports bars, alcohol, sports – and a certain interpretation of masculinity – have long been commodified together as a tripartite, co-dependent culture.

On Saturday, FIFA announced alcohol will no longer be available at stadiums hosting Qatar World Cup 2022 matches. It will still be available in Qatar during the tournament but not be as omnipresent as at previous tournaments.

But where are the roots of this nexus? How did the world of sport start to revolve around alcohol?

It all goes back at least as far as the Romans, says Professor Steve Jackson, of Otago University in New Zealand.

“They would provide bread and circuses – which included wine and various alcohol – to appease the citizens and to dispel social unrest,” Jackson told Al Jazeera.

In more recent times, United States advertisers soon realised the power of identifying their product with a sports team in the early days of popular radio. Regional brewers would sponsor local baseball teams in the hope of building crossover loyalties, where fans’ loyalties and behaviour would become associated with loyalty to the local beer that “brought you the game”.

Sports, beer and masculinity form a systematically naturalised “Holy Trinity”, says Jackson, as they interact with the marketplace and a broader drawing of gender in contemporary culture.

While many elite-level sports have traditionally found men as their primary participants and supporters, it is a long-running trope that what is often now dubbed “toxic masculinity” has made it difficult for men to openly discuss personal matters, emotions or mental health.

“[Beer] facilitates interaction among men, and also increasingly women,” Paul Widdop, an academic on the geopolitical economy of sport at the University of Manchester, told Al Jazeera.

“It is part of the culture of sport, culture that is created by generations of fans interacting with a symbolic attachment – not only to beer brands – but also to pubs. It’s why most Victorian football grounds are located next to pubs.”

In that sense, alcohol works as a social lubricant.

Beer money

The marketing of sport and alcohol is the crucible in which this relationship is forged. The 30 leading alcoholic beverage brands are spending more than $760m each year across more than 280 active deals to sponsor the biggest competitions, clubs and athletes in the sports industry, according to sports market intelligence company Sportcal.

Heineken, which spends upwards of $118.3m annually on sport sponsorships, currently has 25 active deals, including a $21.4m annual deal with Formula One and a $10m deal with Major League Soccer. Bud Light’s $230m annual NFL sponsorship, of its total sports spending of $249.7m, makes it the industry’s biggest spender on sports advertising.

A study of the 2020 rugby Six Nations Championship revealed an alcohol reference every 12 seconds on average during each game. The vast majority of these related to the primary sponsor of the event – Guinness. In Ethiopia, where alcohol advertising is banned, a study of televised English Premier League football matches showed some form of alcohol advertising on screen for an average of 10.8 minutes – of a 90-minute game.

With football the most popular sport in the world, it is also the most targeted by alcohol brands. Some 49 percent of all active alcohol sponsorship deals centre on football. Of those, 59 percent target European consumers. The next biggest market is North America, with 20 percent.

What does that mean in real terms?

As England prepared to face Denmark in the Euro 2020 semi-final, publicans were preparing to pour an expected 10 million pints on match day, the British Beer and Pub Association estimated. The Economist reported that, during the match itself, some 50,000 drinks would be purchased every minute.

Excessive consumption is linked to violent behaviour. Alcohol is also an established link between sports results and abuse. Domestic violence cases spike by 38 percent when England lose a football game, a 2014 Lancaster University study reported.

They spike by 26 percent when they win or draw.

Euro 2016 England fan zone
Domestic violence spikes in the hours after England play a football match, a 2014 study found [Philippe Wojazer/Reuters]

Ingraining drinking culture at grassroots levels

But it is not just the big televised leagues where alcohol is ubiquitous. Grassroots sports clubs are often at the heart of communities around the world, running youth and senior teams, while the clubhouse provides a largely self-regulating social space, usually with a bar providing a necessary income stream to keep the club afloat.

“Here the culture of sports and its pairing with the culture of beer and drinking is naturalised,” Wenner says. “[It] becomes a sign or code of acceptable masculinity, signing that you are a ‘real man’ rather than one who ‘opts out’ and thus may have his masculinity called into question. So it’s an embedded exercise in socialisation of what it means to be a male – a male, of course, on the terms and conditions of ‘the good old days’ when ‘men were men’. I call this kind of masculinity ideal ‘vestigial hypermasculinity’.”

While the culture of sport and alcohol has undoubtedly had an effect on the development of masculine identity in the 20th and 21st centuries, its advocates argue that many opportunities for people to play sport would not exist were it not for the income from alcohol sponsorship and sales.

Estimates have suggested that 300 million British pounds ($350m) come from alcohol sponsorship to sport in the UK alone, which accounts for about 12 percent of the country’s total sports sponsorship. Of that, approximately 50 million pounds ($60m) goes directly to grassroots sports. This creates investment in facilities, stadia, player development, regional structures and tournaments, notes the Portman Group, an alcohol industry trade group which promotes responsible drinking and aims to protect children from alcohol marketing.

“Our code prevents sponsorship marketing activities from suggesting it is acceptable to consume alcohol before, or while, playing sport,” CEO Matt Lambert told Al Jazeera. “About a tenth of UK sports sponsorship comes from alcohol – and that supports a healthy, balanced lifestyle by helping grassroots sport and cultural events. Sponsorship makes activities more accessible, providing funding for equipment and facilities to develop amateur and professional sports through partnerships.”


Even if it were desired, is it now too late to decouple sports and booze?

There may be health and social reasons to do so – but the most powerful catalyst for change will always be the desire of the markets. If there is money to be made, culture can change. And as sports franchises look to expand their global reach in new geographical markets, so are their sponsors. Bahrain’s Formula One celebrations, for example, feature sparkling grape juice.

To the innocent eyes, it looks the same as a champagne celebration anywhere else in the world.

The alcohol industry’s solution to reaching consumers in Islamic or Muslim-majority countries is not about delinking drinking culture and sports, but substituting a locally acceptable variation, says Jackson: “Many countries in the Middle East in particular are now on this massive campaign – linked to sportswashing – in which they’re trying to find a balance. So we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re going to introduce no-alcohol drinks.

“It might open up a space where male consumers in these countries can then legally, ethically, engage in this sports-drinking culture – and then they’re becoming part of exactly what Budweiser and all the big companies want. It’s beer-washing.”

Similarly, with the growing popularity of women’s sports, advertisers appear understandably reluctant to break a profitable association and instead adapt, featuring more women in alcohol advertising – as consumers rather than commodities, which had been a hallmark of historic alcohol advertising.

“The FIFA Women’s World Cup is here in New Zealand and Australia next year, and the alcohol industries are looking to cash in on that,” says Jackson. “And often it’s not just beer [targeted at women], it’s hard liquor.”

Professor Catherine Palmer, of Northumbria University, lays out an emerging research agenda for defining the relationship between women, sport and alcohol as a feminist issue, noting that the framing of women’s relationships with alcohol is invariably portrayed as problematic, in comparison to men’s consumption.

Sport-related drinking for women is as pleasurable and problematic as it is for men, she wrote in 2019.

The centuries-old joint culture of alcohol and sports appears unlikely to come to an end any time soon. With no alternative sports funding identified, alcohol sponsorship will continue to play a huge role in grassroots and elite clubs and competitions. But culture does change and expand, especially if there’s a profit motive.

And as the worlds of alcohol and sports both continue to adapt in a bid to reach non-traditional markets, we may yet see a profit motive in inclusivity and a decoupling of the more “toxic” and violent elements of the culture.

And that’s something worth raising a glass to.

Source: Al Jazeera