It’s a major cultural irony when sports fans stand around and comment on the skills of professional athletes while sipping a beer, academic Lawrence Wenner wrote 30 years ago.
From podium celebrations with champagne to shenanigans in locker rooms and sports bars, alcohol, sport – and a particular interpretation of masculinity – have long been marketed as a tripartite, interdependent culture.
On Saturday, FIFA announced that alcohol will no longer be available in the stadiums hosting matches of the Qatar 2022 World Cup. It will continue to be available in Qatar during the tournament, but not as ubiquitously as previous tournaments.
But where are the roots of this connection? How did the world of sports start to revolve around alcohol?
It all goes back at least to the Romans, says Professor Steve Jackson of Otago University in New Zealand.
“They would provide bread and circuses — including wine and various alcoholic beverages — to appease citizens and disperse social unrest,” Jackson told Al Jazeera.
More recently, US advertisers soon recognized the power of identifying their product with a sports team in the early days of popular radio. Regional brewers sponsored local baseball teams in hopes of building crossover loyalties, where fan loyalty and behavior would be coupled with loyalty to the local beer that “brought you the game”.
Sport, beer, and masculinity form a systematically naturalized “holy trinity,” Jackson says, as they interact with the marketplace and broader representation of gender in contemporary culture.
🎙️ Infantino: “If you can’t drink a beer for three hours, I think you can survive. There are many countries that ban alcohol in stadiums, like France, but as it’s a Muslim country, that’s a problem.” pic.twitter.com/trsEuz1BTj
— Football Tweet ⚽ (@Football__Tweet) November 19, 2022
While many elite sports have traditionally found men to be their primary participants and supporters, it is a long-standing phenomenon that what is now often referred to as “toxic masculinity” makes it difficult for men to be open about personal issues, emotions, or mental health speak .
“[Beer] facilitates interaction between men and, increasingly, women,” Paul Widdop, a researcher in the geopolitical economy of sport at the University of Manchester, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s part of sports culture, a culture created by generations of fans interacting with a symbolic attachment – not just to beer brands, but to pubs as well. It is for this reason that most Victorian football pitches are next to pubs.”
In this sense, alcohol acts as a social lubricant.
The marketing of sport and alcohol is the crucible in which this relationship is forged. The top 30 alcohol beverage brands spend more than $760 million each year on more than 280 active businesses to sponsor the sporting industry’s biggest competitions, clubs and athletes, according to sports market research firm Sportcal.
Heineken, which spends more than $118.3 million annually on sports sponsorships, currently has 25 active deals, including a $21.4 million annual deal with Formula 1 and a $10 million deal with the Major League soccer. Bud Light’s $230 million in annual NFL sponsorships out of total sports spending of $249.7 million makes it the industry’s largest contributor to sports advertising.
A study of the 2020 Rugby Six Nations Championship found that alcohol reference occurred on average every 12 seconds during each match. The vast majority of these related to the main sponsor of the event – Guinness. In Ethiopia, where alcohol advertising is banned, a study of televised English Premier League football matches showed some form of alcohol advertising on screen for an average of 10.8 minutes – for a 90-minute match.
As football is the most popular sport in the world, it is also the most attacked by alcohol brands. Around 49 percent of all active alcohol sponsorship deals revolve around football. Of these, 59 percent are aimed at European consumers. The next largest market is North America with 20 percent.
What does that mean specifically?
As England prepared to face Denmark in the Euro 2020 semi-finals, pub pubs were preparing to pour the expected 10 million pints on matchday, the British Beer and Pub Association estimated. The Economist reported that around 50,000 drinks were bought every minute during the game itself.
Excessive consumption is linked to violent behavior. Alcohol is also an established link between sports scores and abuse. Domestic violence cases rise 38 percent when England lose a football game, a 2014 Lancaster University study reported.
They go up 26 percent when they win or draw.
Anchor drinking culture at the base
But alcohol is not only omnipresent in the big television leagues. Grassroots clubs are often the heart of communities around the world, managing youth and senior teams, while the clubhouse provides a largely self-regulating social space, usually with a bar, providing a necessary source of income to keep the club afloat.
“Sports culture and its pairing with beer and drinking culture is naturalized here,” says Wenner. “[It] becomes a sign or code of acceptable masculinity, signaling that you are a “real man” and not one who is “dropping out” and therefore potentially questioning his masculinity. So it’s an embedded exercise in the socialization of what it means to be a man – a man, of course, in the terms of the ‘good old days’ when ‘men were men’. I call this kind of ideal of masculinity ‘rudimentary hypermasculinity’.”
While sport and alcohol culture undoubtedly had an impact on the development of male identity in the 20th and 21st centuries, its proponents argue that many opportunities for people to engage in sport would not exist without the revenue generated from alcohol sponsorship and sales.
It is estimated that £300 million (US$350 million) in alcohol sponsorship flows into sport in the UK alone, accounting for around 12 per cent of the country’s total sport sponsorship. Around £50m (US$60m) of that goes directly to grassroots sport. This creates investment in facilities, stadiums, player development, regional structures and tournaments, notes the Portman Group, an alcohol industry trade group that promotes responsible drinking and protects children from alcohol marketing.
You don’t have to drink alcohol to enjoy football.
Alcohol is unhealthy.
Above all, it violates Islamic law.
— Robert Carter (@Bob_cart124) November 18, 2022
“Our Code prevents sponsorship marketing activities from suggesting that it is acceptable to consume alcohol before or during sport,” CEO Matt Lambert told Al Jazeera. “Around a tenth of UK sport sponsorship comes from alcohol – and that supports a healthy, balanced lifestyle by supporting grassroots sporting and cultural events. Sponsorship makes activities more accessible by providing funding for equipment and facilities to develop amateur and professional sports through partnerships.”
Even if it were wanted, is it too late to decouple sport and alcohol?
There may be health and social reasons for this – but the most powerful catalyst for change will always be the desire of the markets. When it comes to making money, the culture can change. And as sports franchises seek to expand their global reach into new geographic markets, so are their sponsors. At Bahrain’s Formula 1 celebrations, for example, there is sparkling grape juice.
To the innocent eye it looks like a champagne celebration somewhere else in the world.
The alcohol industry’s solution to reaching consumers in Islamic or Muslim-majority countries is not to decouple drinking culture from sport, but to replace it with a locally acceptable variant, Jackson says: “Many countries in the Middle East in particular are now engaging in this one massive campaign – linked to sportswashing – in which they try to find a balance. So we shouldn’t be surprised that they will introduce soft drinks.
“It could open up a space where male consumers in these countries can legally and ethically engage in this sports drinking culture – and then become a part of exactly what Budweiser and all the big companies want. It’s beer washing.”
Similarly, given the growing popularity of women’s sports, advertisers seem understandably unwilling to break a profitable tie and instead adapt by featuring more women in alcohol advertising – as consumers rather than commodities, which was a hallmark of historical alcohol advertising .
“The FIFA Women’s World Cup is taking place here in New Zealand and Australia next year and the alcohol industry wants to benefit from that,” says Jackson. “And often it’s not just beer [targeted at women]it’s liquor.”
Professor Catherine Palmer of Northumbria University sets out an emerging research agenda to define the relationship between women, sport and alcohol as a feminist issue, noting that shaping women’s relationships with alcohol compared to men’s consumption is invariably presented as problematic.
Sports-related drinking is just as pleasurable and problematic for women as it is for men, she wrote in 2019.
The centuries-old shared culture of alcohol and sport doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. With no alternative sports funding identified, alcohol sponsorship will continue to play a large role in grassroots and elite sports clubs and competitions. But the culture is changing and expanding, especially when it comes to profit.
And as both the alcohol and sports worlds continue to adapt to reach non-traditional markets, we may still see a winning motive in inclusivity and a decoupling of the more “toxic” and violent elements of culture.
And it’s worth raising a glass to.