The link between alcohol and rugby

The Highlanders, by all measures the most popular sports team in the South, have never been afraid of doing things a little differently.

One thinks of the decision — bold, if ultimately futile — to ignore the old draft system and pick a squad based purely on local talent in the mid-2000s.

Then there was the move to follow a drastically different path and go for the "galactico" model in 2013. Another doomed experiment but one that certainly got tongues wagging.

From innovative coaching to unpredictable game plans, the Highlanders have often had a pleasingly unconventional approach to the game of rugby.

Here they go again, announcing recently they had signed a four-year extension to their sponsorship deal with an alcohol company — one that, to be fair, has had a long association with Otago sport, indeed with media companies like our own.

That might barely have raised a ripple had it not been for the fact the deal came with naming rights. Yes, your Highlanders will officially — if not in the pages of this newspaper nor in many other uses — be known as the Speight’s Highlanders.

A little bit icky? Or nothing to be worried about in the slightest?

On the "nothing to see here" side, a rugby team in bed with a booze company is old news. Rightly or wrongly, the sport and beer have had a long association. Indeed, both the Highlanders and Otago have carried the same beer name on game or training jerseys, and the Highlanders’ link with the brand goes back to the start of the professional era.

There is not a single law being bent or broken here. Alcohol sponsorship is perfectly legal in New Zealand, some 31 years after tobacco sponsorship was outlawed.

And, goodness, perhaps there should be nothing but sympathy for the Highlanders franchise. It, like all professional sports organisations, has taken a hammering through the pandemic, and it needs to find money from somewhere to pay these talented players who, fingers crossed, will deliver our region a lot of happiness this season.

We can accept all of that, but still understand why this move has raised some eyebrows, if not exactly caused a storm.

There is a genuine debate to be had about the moral suitability of such an explicit link between a sports team — one that trades in a type of wholesomeness, and its attributes as a role model — and a company that flogs alcohol, responsible for so much damage in society.

Indeed, while predictable, the reaction from national body Alcohol Healthwatch to the Highlanders’ news was telling. It would, executive director Dr Nicki Jackson said, amplify the harmful connection between alcohol and rugby.

"I’m really disappointed," Dr Jackson told The New Zealand Herald.

"This is the opposite direction we should be headed. This is increased exposure of our most harmful drug. The research is clear that alcohol sponsorship increases drinking and increases harm."

It was that sort of expert opinion that prompted the Government to address the issue in 2014, when a ministerial forum led by rugby league great Sir Graham Lowe actually recommended a complete ban on alcohol sponsorship in sport.

That went nowhere, and the Herald reports New Zealand sporting organisations benefit from alcohol money to the tune of $21million a year, about 75% of that going to rugby’s coffers.

Would the sport suffer if booze backing was banned? Perhaps, in the short term, but it survived when cigarettes were sidelined.

While fans of Manchester United, the Green Bay Packers, the Boston Red Sox and the like could never comprehend selling naming rights to their respective teams, New Zealand sport is a small commercial pond, and it has become a common trend. Whether that name should be allowed to be an alcohol company is not for franchises like the Highlanders to be concerned about. The Government needs to address the issue.


Ye ken tell the man who boozes by the Company© he chooses.

New Zealand is a country which has embraced the drinking culture. The issues isn't sponsorship of the highlander's by a beer company. The issue is a population that consumes too much alcohol. Try as you might to blame a company for a national problem it's the new Zealand people who consume alcohol to excess. Why can't people assume accountability for their own actions and poor choices rather than blaming others.

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