How future Olympic stars are targeted by unhealthy sports sponsorships

13 July 2016 | Wendy Watson

Childrens athletics

With the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio on the horizon, the country’s attention is already turning to team Australia and our hopes for a podium finish. Yet amongst the lightning fast speeds and incredible strength, unhealthy global brands have already made their mark, with Cadbury, McDonald’s and Coca Cola the worldwide sponsors of the upcoming Olympic Games. And worryingly, our new research has revealed that this exposure is happening right from the time this great sporting talent is born.

Research into junk food sponsorship of children’s sports

Cancer Council NSW has released research today revealing eight of the nine food and beverage sponsors of children’s sports development programs in Australia are classified as unhealthy. And these brands know what they are doing – with children a major target market for advertising as they influence their parents’ spending and have the potential to become brand-loyal. The more children are engaged in a sport, sport team, or with an athlete, the greater the influence that junk food sponsorship will have on a child.

As the nation gears up for Olympic fever, it’s alarming to see so many of our young sporting hopefuls and fans continually targeted by unhealthy brands at every level of sport. Even the most iconic Australian sporting programs are engaging with unhealthy sponsors. Some recent examples which you may be familiar with include:

  • Little Athletics – sponsored by McDonald’s in most states, a confectionary company in Tasmania and Gatorade and Schweppes in Victoria.
  • Basketball Victoria – branded equipment partnership with McDonald’s
  • The Nippers Surf Lifesaving program – sponsorship with Schweppes.
  • Swimming Queensland – sponsorship with McDonalds including branded McDonald’s welcome kits for the Platypus Lagoon program.
  • South Australian Spikezone volleyball – has a naming rights partnership with Nippy’s.

This sponsorship ultimately undermines the healthy lifestyle that the sports programs aim to promote, and it’s taking its toll. Interviews of 10-14 year olds found they think of food and drink companies that sponsor their club and favourite team as ‘cool’. They even said they’d like to return the favour to these sponsors by buying their products.

Our research also found that these brand sponsors had a huge presence across the sports development program. All of the unhealthy food and beverage sponsors identified had logo placements on the homepage of the junior development sport program they were sponsoring and about one-third had naming rights to the development program (e.g. Nippy’s Spikezone). The same number also gave out branded participant packs to kids (e.g. Milo in2cricket) and branded equipment (e.g. McDonald’s for junior cricket). And while we are talking Olympic fever, McDonald’s takes podium position, having been found at the time of the study to be sponsoring three separate junior sports programs across the country.

Sport is such a big part of Australian culture and with these brands sponsoring such popular sporting events and local programs, it’s really concerning how often this unhealthy food and beverage message is targeted to our children. Our sporting programs have the potential to influence hundreds of thousands of children so why aren’t we embracing sponsors who reflect the healthy lifestyle that these programs ultimately encourage?

The good news is that not all sponsors of kids’ sport are promoting unhealthy foods, with other organisations like Jetstar and ANZ Bank supporting kids’ sports development programs. We know that change is needed, and that’s why Cancer Council NSW wants sponsorship of children’s sport programs included in food marketing regulation to reduce the impact unhealthy food marketing has on children.

In the absence of regulation, we are asking these companies to exercise responsible marketing practices and withdraw from sports sponsorship.

Join us to stop unhealthy sports development sponsorship by visiting cancercouncil.com.au/sports-sponsorship