When the Highlanders run onto the field for their first game of Super Rugby Aotearoa later this month, they will be doing so under a new name – one that experts say should spark concern in the New Zealand sporting industry.
The Highlanders this week announced a four-year extension to their sponsorship deal with alcohol company Speight's, a partnership that goes back to the inception of Super Rugby 25 years ago.
"The Speight's name has a long and proud association with the Highlanders region and a connection with sport that stretches back over 40 years," said Highlanders boss Roger Clark. "The Speight's brand is synonymous with integrity, passion, pride and innovation which are the qualities we are looking for in a commercial partner."
Part of the agreement will see the franchise called the 'Speight's Highlanders' in 2021, one of the first instances of a professional sports team in New Zealand selling their naming rights to an alcoholic brand, while Speight's will also appear on Highlanders jerseys.
Dr Nicki Jackson, executive director of Alcohol Healthwatch, says the Highlanders' new sponsorship deal will only further intensify the harmful connection between alcohol and rugby.
"I'm really disappointed," Jackson told the Herald. "This is the opposite direction [we should be headed]. This is increased exposure of our most harmful drug."
Jackson says alcohol sponsorship and advertising in sport should be banned, just like tobacco was in 1990.
"The research is clear that alcohol sponsorship increases drinking and increases harm.
"It would cost very little to be able to do that and would protect so many New Zealanders, particularly children who watch and follow rugby so passionately.
"It goes against everything we're doing in this country to improve our health and to improve equity … alcohol companies have no place in sport in our country."
Otago University professor Michael Sam, who has conducted research on alcohol sponsorship in sport, says the Highlanders' sponsorship deal also diminishes the community connection with the team.
"The sponsor is contractually connected with the team and therefore any mention of the team, the sponsor is mentioned.
"That just emphasises that connection that this is perhaps no longer a community team but a beer company."
Sam says alcohol sponsorship and advertising in sport is particularly harmful because it is aimed at young people.
"We know that the reason the sponsorship works for the sponsor is that consuming broadcast sport is for young people. It's definitely aimed at young people.
"We know it's aimed at males for instance. And of course males and youths are one of the targets for alcohol reduction by some of the health promotion agencies."
The Highlanders declined to comment when approached by the Herald about the reaction to their new sponsorship deal with Speight's.
Could banning alcohol sponsorship damage sport?
Jackson says research shows that banning alcohol sponsorship from sport won't negatively impact sports funding in the long run.
"The sky did not fall in when we replaced tobacco sponsorship and research in Australia shows that sponsorship went up."
In New Zealand, several professional sports are sponsored by alcohol companies, from rugby, cricket, basketball and football, taking in about $21 million a year.
New Zealand Rugby takes the greatest proportion of revenue from alcohol sponsorships, making up about 75 per cent at the regional level.
However, a report published in Australia showed that sponsorship revenue in sport almost doubled in the four years after the country banned tobacco sponsorship in 1996, suggesting that there are many other suitable replacements for alcohol sponsorships if it goes the same way as tobacco.
Research in New Zealand also backs up the findings from the Australian report. A report published in the New Zealand Medical Journal found that Kiwi sports audiences were exposed to between 1.6 and 3.8 alcohol brand exposures per minute and called for an urgent need for alcohol sponsorship regulation in sport.
Otago University professor Louise Signal, co-author of the report titled 'Alcohol sponsorship of a summer of sport', says alcohol sponsorship could be easily replaced.
"It's not an issue that they need the money or they couldn't get it from another source. We want our children to grow up in a healthy world where sport is linked with wellbeing and fun not booze."
'The Government is yet to take action'
Otago University professor Steve Jackson, who specialises in sport, says the other issue is the fact that the Government is not willing to take action on alcohol sponsorship.
In 2014, the Government established the Ministerial Forum on Alcohol Advertising and Sponsorship chaired by former rugby league coach Sir Graham Lowe. The report released by the forum recommended a complete ban on alcohol sponsorship in sport and introducing a sponsorship replacement funding programme.
"It's now seven years and really there's been no major uptake on the major recommendations from that report," Jackson says. "I know that Sir Graham Lowe is quite disappointed. He points to the same thing that many of us do - that the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) is a self-regulating body and the alcohol industry is a powerful lobby. And the Government, for whatever reason, is yet to take action."
When asked by the Herald about concerns over alcohol sponsorship in sport, the Ministry of Health said it encourages sports organisations to consider the health impacts of sponsorship deals.
"The Ministry of Health recognises the harm caused by alcohol through both binge drinking and frequent consumption above recommended levels," a Ministry of Health spokesperson said in a statement.
"While recognising the financial constraints that sporting bodies are often under, we would encourage them to consider the health considerations and impacts on the wider community when assessing possible sponsorship agreements.
"Alcohol sponsorship and advertising is subject to the Advertising Standards Authority's Code for Advertising and Promotion of Alcohol, which has recently been reviewed and updated (Dec 2020). In particular, its principles and guidelines refer to not engaging in alcohol advertising if 25 per cent of participants or spectators are under 18 years of age. The Advertising Standards Authority is an industry self-regulating body, rather than a Government agency with legislative powers."
Sport New Zealand, the Government body that oversees sport in New Zealand, added similar sentiments.
"Commercial partners play an important role in the sport sector, now more than ever given the financial impact of Covid-19," a Sport NZ spokesperson said in a statement to the Herald.
"Alcohol sponsorship is still permitted in New Zealand. We encourage sports to carefully consider which partnerships are right for them, their fans and broader community, and believe that sports or franchises are in the best position to do so. Ultimately their fans will tell them if it is the right decision.
"Responsibility also sits with sponsors. Alcohol companies must ensure their sponsorships and advertising comply with the requirements of the Advertising Standards Authority, including restrictions on marketing of alcohol that can be viewed by young people.
"Alcohol companies also have the ability to use sponsorship and advertising to encourage responsible drinking, as has been shown through recent Heineken campaigns and many other joint campaigns between sports and their sponsors to encourage responsible drinking."
Jackson says he's not surprised by the Highlanders' latest sponsorship deal, especially within the current sporting landscape.
"If you look at it from a business standpoint, the Highlanders are the smallest franchise of a professional sport almost anywhere in the world – the population of Dunedin is 130,000 – and they're expected to come up with the financial backing that Cape Town, Johannesburg, Auckland, Sydney have. That's quite a big ask and arguably that kind of model is not really sustainable.
"The key in all this is the Government hasn't taken action. So to expect sporting franchises to do it when they're short of funding is I think expecting a lot.
"Over time there's a clear saturation of alcohol sponsorship and branding within many sports and it naturalises the relationship between the sport, alcohol, and on top of that, you could even say masculinity and national identity."
"We're talking about what is meant to be a healthy and professional activity where you're meant to be achieving high performance and high physical health," adds Dr Nicki Jackson.
"When alcohol companies try to tag alongside a healthy activity, it's just wrong. It's kind of putting a health halo on alcohol and that's just simply not true."