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Big Business: Alcohol Advertising and College Sports

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College athletics is BIG business. Athletic programs across the country are feeling increased pressure to raise more and more funds. What price are institutions of higher learning willing to pay for those sports dollars?

Alcohol advertising is pervasive in college sporting events. According to a recent report in USA Today, “NCAA tournament games led all other sports events in alcohol-related TV advertising in 2002, with 939 ads costing $28 million. That compares with a combined 925 ads aired during the Super Bowl, World Series, college bowl games and the NFL’s Monday Night Football.”

The alcohol industry sees nothing wrong with advertising during college sporting events. They deny that the ads promote underage alcohol use. They claim that the vast majority of people watching and attending college sports, as well as the majority of students in college, are of legal drinking age. Research by Nielsen Media shows that almost 90% of all college football and basketball viewers are of legal drinking age. Additional research shows that 89 % of viewers of last year’s NCAA tournament were adults, with a median age of 48. Advertising during college sporting events is seen as smart marketing – many of those in their target audience are sports fans. Research demonstrates that alcohol ads don’t induce non-drinkers to begin drinking nor does it increase overall alcohol consumption. Its impact is to influence a brand’s market share. Americans spend more than $120 billion on alcohol every year ($50-$70 billion on beer alone). A company can make far more profit by stealing a few percent of the market away from a competitor than by causing a few abstainers to become drinkers. Gaining just 0.5% of a $50 billion dollar market would generate an extra $250 million dollars for a company.

If alcohol ads do not cause non-drinkers to start drinking alcohol, then what’s the harm? Some believe that alcohol ads transmit and reinforce socially inappropriate messages that society could do without. Beer commercials, for instance, promote the expectation that alcohol and sex go together perfectly at a time when campuses are attempting to deal with sexual assault and the spread of STDs. While the commercial might not influence a student’s choice to drink, the message could affect how male students view and treat women, or how female students view themselves. In many ads, women are invariably shown as the prize that men will receive for drinking a particular brand of beer.

Some organizations have been very vocal about the need to discontinue alcohol advertising in college sporting events. The American Medical Association (AMA) has assumed a stance against alcohol advertising during NCAA games. The AMA maintains that alcohol ads undermine efforts to prevent binge drinking, alcohol-related deaths, alcohol-related accidents, and sexual assaults on campus. The Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest launched a campaign against alcohol advertising in college sports as well. Many officials and school representatives agree with this position. The prevailing reason is that most believe that accepting alcohol advertising money is completely inconsistent with the current focus of universities on curbing underage drinking.

According to the Sports Business Journal, beer and other alcohol companies spent $50 million advertising on college sports broadcasts last year. In addition, 45 % of Division 1A football schools received direct sponsorship dollars from alcohol companies, while another 25 % received indirect money through advertising. Schools have been left to decide for themselves whether to accept alcohol advertising at their sporting events.

While it has set policy for championships (except in football) and recommended guidelines for individual institutions, the NCAA has shied away from imposing across-the-board restrictions on advertising, sponsorships and sales at events. The NCAA has long banned alcohol sales and on-site advertising at the 88 championships it runs in 23 different sports. The association does give beer, malt-beverage, and wine advertisers access to postseason television and radio broadcasts. These advertisements cannot compose more than 14% of the space available for advertising, not more than 60 seconds per hour of any telecast or broadcast, or more than 120 seconds total in any telecast or broadcast. Advertisements during an NCAA event must incorporate “Drink Responsibly” educational messaging. The context of all NCAA event advertising must be free of gratuitous ad overly-suggested sexual innuendo; no displays of disorderly, reckless, or destructive behavior; and meet other criteria such as not being defamatory, obscene, profane, vulgar, or to not include demeaning portrayals of males/females as sexual object. As you can see, even though the NCAA allows alcohol advertising, it is restricted.


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