Otago Daily Times

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 mid2000s.

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 fouryear 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 $21 million 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.

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