MICHAEL THORN. The cricket pay dispute and how broadcast deals drive unhealthy product marketing

Jul 27, 2017

After the series of serious drug and alcohol incidents involving rugby league players and officials in May, some quite reasonably made the argument that sports that so closely embrace alcohol brands can hardly be surprised when the behaviour of players clothed in these brands act badly. This was cited in support of the argument that alcohol and sport are not a good mix.

Recently, the ABC’s Tim Gavel wrote about the difficulty of conveying to players the public humiliation they will suffer if they behave unacceptably, especially when the transgressions involve drugs and alcohol. He noted the conflicting messages often presented by professional sporting bodies made this task harder than it need be.

Peter Fitzsimmons has likewise made many strong and sound criticisms in his SMH columns about Big Sport’s associations with unhealthy brands.

He wrote “if the NRL is really serious about limiting the damage done to their people, their ‘brand’, then the obvious first step is to stop taking alcohol sponsorship”.

Both columnists make fair points.

The worsening Australian cricket pay dispute provides another and better way to understand the offensive levels of alcohol advertising and sponsorship we now associate with big sport.

In recent years our major sporting codes have been successfully cutting bigger and better, billion dollar broadcast deals.

The AFL pockets $2.508 billion for its six year (2017-22) deal with Foxtel and the Seven Network, and the NRL a cool $1.8 billion for a five year deal negotiated with Nine, Foxsports and Telstra in 2015.

When Cricket Australia entered into negotiations earlier this year it would have been eyeing a similar billion dollar windfall.

Now, naturally enough, as the pie gets bigger, everyone, quite understandably, demands a greater slice.

This is why Australian cricketers are so adamant that they must retain the revenue sharing model they have enjoyed for the past two decades. They know how big the pie is and how much bigger it was set to become.

And it’s the very same reason why TV network heads and sporting code chief executives stand shoulder to shoulder, opposed to any measures that would restrict their ability to jointly market, promote and sell the game to anyone who’ll pay the price.

Having bid up the price of these deals, the broadcasters are desperate to find the advertising revenue to pay for them. The result has been increasingly objectionable sponsorship and advertising deals that are too frequently viewed by young and impressionable children.

I don’t care what anyone says, they are irresponsible.

Peter Fitzsimmons, who is rapidly becoming Australia’s leading public health advocate opposed to unhealthy consumptions, has cut through with his criticism of player behaviour, but history shows, that given time the sports will wriggle free of the hook.

Criticising the association of sport with alcohol brands is logical, but perversely it offers the codes in question a get out of jail free card by allowing chief executives and boards to castigate and punish offending players, or officials, but not accept any share of the blame. Witness the further alleged indiscretions of NSW Blues players Blake Ferguson and Josh Dugan.

Vilifying these players for their behaviour and meting out severe punishments satisfies the baying media and allows the clubs to parade their no tolerance credentials to bad behaviour, but it doesn’t stop young people’s exposure to thousands of hours of advertising and promotion.

And frankly, incidents of poor player behaviour are not about to end.

What happens is that it allows clubs to sacrifice the occasional miscreant, and then everyone, particularly management, moves on. Nothing to see here!

But we need to keep our eye on the ball – and that is on these ever expanding and corrupting broadcast deals.

Big Sport’s responsibilities lie in two domains: to those within the confines of its stadia (both players and spectators), and to the ‘viewers’ beyond.

Sport’s ‘in stadia’ responsibility is that of an employer, where codes have significant ‘duty of care’ obligations, particularly to the players.

But Big Sport’s duty of care to those beyond the stadia, is a completely different affair.

This is the greater duty of care – its responsibility to the millions of viewers, both young and old – and goes to sports complicity in the promotion of unhealthy consumptions – drinking, gambling and junk food, where sport has become a willing Trojan Horse for these addictive products.

In his book Sport and alcohol: An ethical perspective Professor Carwyn Rh. Jones says “sport plays a significant and problematic role in normalising alcohol use in general and excessive or binge drinking in particular” (p27).

It is this normalising, which is so concerning.

But also “watching the game is an occasion which licenses harmful drinking by fans and there is clear evidence that such game-related drinking contributes to disorder, aggression and violence, including domestic violence” (p27).

Big Sport’s business model focuses on growth at the expense of everything else. It is this that creates so much community disquiet about alcohol, gambling and junk food advertising – it is a business model that seeks more and more money through bigger and bigger broadcast rights deals.

What follows is that enormous sums of money are required to fund these deals and from here it is a slippery slope to what is an acceptable advertising or sponsorship dollar.

Given these conditions almost anything is acceptable, moral judgement is suspended, and quickly poor associations become de rigueur, including with addictive and harm causing brands.

These are the brands that are prepared to pay the price.

Everyone is compromised. Even gullible fans.

This brings us back to the cricket pay dispute, where everyone seeks their cut of the massive spoils.

It is rare that people are able to resist the ethical challenge when so much money is involved, when we worship our sporting heroes engaged in monumental contests on massive stages like the MCG. Amid so much drama, all quickly find a justification for their behaviour.

But will these deals last? Some are already arguing that the deals have reached their peak, and with the continuing disruption to traditional media models the next generation of deals will be very different, less gargantuan and more fractured to reflect the now disrupted media platforms.

However, for now we are stuck with deals that are not good for our children, and for the many others who too are heartily sick of this intrusive advertising.

The grounds for change are clear, and the public’s right to demand that our leaders involve themselves in this are undeniable.

These broadcasts are made over the public airways. Broadcasters are supposed to pay a royalty for using these airwaves, in the form of licence fees, in much the same way as the mining companies do for extracting the nation’s mineral wealth.

Consequently, the public has a right to say how these airways should be used, and for what. This means demanding tougher conditions being placed on the use of this public domain. And this goes for the internet too.

Rubbish complaints by broadcasters about cost pressures after they have bid up the price of content and acquired too much spectrum should be totally ignored. Governments have already made too many concessions to the media moguls on this front.

The central issue is the danger to the health of young people and others in the promotion of alcohol and fast foods.

If that means clipping the wings of the sports and wealthy players by banning alcohol and other unhealthy product sponsorships and marketing deals, then so be it. Our kids’ futures depend upon it.

Michael Thorn is Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education 



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