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Is it time to substitute sports sponsors for healthier alternatives?

fizzy drinks and football
Footballer and captain of the Portugal Euro 2020 team, Cristiano Ronaldo, went viral for removing Coca-Cola bottles from view during a pre-match press conference, and seemingly encouraging viewers to drink water instead. Sport has long been sponsored by unhealthy products, but maybe it’s time to give them the red card, suggests Dr Oyinlola Oyebode, expert in public health from Warwick Medical School.

At a press conference, before Portugal played Hungary in Euro2020, Cristiano Ronaldo removed two bottles of Coca-Cola from the table in front of him. He then picked up a bottle of water and shouted “Agua!”.

Apparently, the footballer is a renowned health fanatic, so certainly if he knows his science he would not choose to drink a sugar-sweetened drink like Coke. Perhaps inspired by Ronaldo, France midfielder and practicing Muslim Paul Pogba also removed a Heineken bottle from a press conference on Wednesday.

Habitual consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks is associated with tooth decay, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Earlier this week, a study of thousands of British children followed up for over 10 years, reported that the more ultra-processed food and drinks the children consumed, the greater their risk of becoming overweight or obese. In this study ultra-processed foods included both sugar-sweetened drinks (like Coca-Cola) and drinks containing no sugar, such as Diet Cola, that are nevertheless highly processed.

With evidence mounting that such products lead to poor health outcomes, their continued association with professional sport looks an increasingly bad fit. So why is it so important to brands to be associated with sports, and is it time to stop sponsorship of sport by any health-harming product?

Eyes on the brand

Coca Cola is an official sponsor of Euro 2020. Euro 2016 attracted a total of 2 billion viewers across the globe, with 600 million viewers watching Portugal (Ronaldo’s team) beat France in the final. By sponsoring such an event, Coca Cola is expecting to build brand recognition worldwide.

Trans-national events like the Euros, World Cup and the Olympics are the perfect opportunity for corporations marketing health-harming products to gain traction, particularly as national restrictions on marketing designed to protect populations are increasing unevenly across the globe.

The Queen’s speech made clear that the UK government is planning a ban on advertising of food and drinks high in sugar, fat and salt shown on TV before 9pm, with the aim to protect children and reduce childhood obesity.

However, commercial sponsorship of sport by health-harming products is another way for these products to build brand-identity, including with children. This is done to increase purchases and consumption of products that we know will make the consumers unhealthy and may lead to an earlier death.

Though it may seem odd that products that we know are unhealthy are paired with sports events like this, it has a long history. Changing this has proved a long and difficult process.

Up in smoke

The 1986 football world cup was sponsored by a tobacco company. This was despite Mexico having its own national laws in place that banned tobacco advertising at the time. FIFA persuaded Mexico to allow the sponsorship of the 1986 games, and perimeter advertising containing the name of a tobacco brand was beamed around the world to millions of people.

This kind of action by the tobacco-industry, undermining individual governments’ attempts to protect their populations, is what propelled the World Health Organisation to consider a Framework Convention of Tobacco Control: international legislation to limit tobacco advertising and marketing which came into effect in 2003.

FIFA has now committed to tobacco-free football but has not taken equivalent action on other health-harming products. Sugar-sweetened drinks and alcohol continue to be promoted through the sport.

Given that diet and nutrition are now among the leading causes of global illness, disability, and death, perhaps it is time for the World Health Organisation and FIFA to re-consider the place of sponsorship by companies selling ultra-processed food?


21 June 2021


Dr Oyinlola OyebodeOyinlola Oyebode is Associate Professor of Public Health at Warwick Medical School. Her research interests include non-communicable diseases, nutrition, obesity, cardiovascular disease, neurological disease, mental illness, Sub-Saharan Africa, low and middle-income countries, urbanisation and health policy. She is a member of the Warwick Obesity Network.

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