An Unhealthy Partnership? A look at UK football’s ingrained relationship with junk food brands

Junk Food Brands: Just Play with the FA and Mars

An Unhealthy Partnership? A look at UK football’s ingrained relationship with junk food brands

Matthew Philpott, Executive Director, Healthy Stadia and Vera Zakharov, SUGAR SMART Campaign Coordinator, Sustain take a look at junk food brands and the relationship they have with the UK football family.

As we reach the end of another long season of pain and blind optimism, it might be tempting for some fans to start thinking of holidays, a bit more time with the family…and those inevitable transfer rumours. Football on hold; just for a couple of months until the pre-season friendlies kick off? No chance.

It’s on the radio and the TV; it’s in the shops; it’s on your Twitter feed; it’s in the pub; it’s even on the kid’s cereal boxes. ‘It’ is of course the great FIFA marketing-fest 2018, which will also include some football played in Russia over June and July. OK – it’s an open goal to have a pop at FIFA and it’s inevitable ‘brand partnerships’ with McDonalds, Coca-Cola and Budweiser, but the situation is hardly any better in the UK, from the Premier League and its clubs, all the way down to grassroots football.

Here in the UK, watching football at a stadium, and increasingly on the sofa, is still a weekly family activity. Kids’ eyes are firmly fixed to the ball, the players, and… the adverts. So, what’s the harm in this?

There is no doubt that the UK is facing a growing child overweight and obesity crisis. New data has revealed that one in three 10- and 11-year-olds, and one in five four- and five-year-olds, are classed as overweight or obese, respectively. This is a fast-ticking health and economic time bomb. The UK-wide NHS costs attributable to overweight and obesity are now projected to reach an eye-watering £9.7 billion by 2050 (that’s 48.5 Neymar’s to you and me), with wider costs to society estimated to reach £49.9 billion per year. While there are a host of factors that contribute to childhood obesity, and no doubt parental and personal responsibility plays an important role, countless research has found that junk food advertisements have a big impact on children’s consumption patterns. Just recently, new research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that 50% of all TV advertisements seen by children aged between four and 15 are for products high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS). Half-time pizza from Dominoes anyone?

The UK has long-established advertising rules banning junk food brands advertising during children’s television, with the UK Government bringing in new rules last December tightening control of HFSS products promoted online. Yet, despite the huge role football plays in children’s lives, there are no restrictions on major junk food brands entering into lucrative partnerships with football associations, leagues and clubs, and with broadcast rights holders. Cadbury is now synonymous with the Premier League, Carabao with the EFL, Mars maintains a lead partnership with the FA’s Women’s and Disability Leagues, as well as the Just Play community and youth sports networks. And McDonald’s has sponsored millions of youth club sports kits every year at grassroots level. Not to mention the dozens of HFSS partnerships with clubs across the UK.

Carabao, a type of energy drink with high levels of sugar and caffeine, currently sponsors the EFL Cup.

Junk Food Brands: Carabao, a type of energy drink with high levels of sugar and caffeine, currently sponsors the EFL Cup.

Of course, these partnerships are not incidental. By linking themselves to clubs, players, leagues, and grassroots participation, these companies are attempting to associate their junk food brands with a healthy and active lifestyle, thereby avoiding the public scrutiny of their contribution to our nation’s diet-related health crisis. So whilst companies such as Mars might be contributing to increasing levels of grassroots participation through their Just Play programme with the FA, consumption of its products is directly contributing to the obesity crisis. To put it into context: to burn off the calorie equivalent of just one chocolate bar, a 14 year-old boy would have to walk the length of 94 football pitches, and a 6 year-old girl would have to play five 30 minute five-a-side matches!

Earlier this year, Healthy Stadia and Sustain, the charity behind SUGAR SMART, drafted an open letter addressed to the FA, the Premier League and DDCMS, along with the other Home Nations FA’s, asking them to reconsider future partnerships with companies promoting HFSS products, in particular the increasing prevalence of ‘sports’ drinks and ‘energy’ drinks partnering with football stakeholders. The letter was supported by hundreds of fans and members of the public, and over 60 experts in the field from clinical research, sustainability, local public health leads, oral health and from within sport itself. As of writing this article, none of the football bodies have issued any formal responses to the letter. In the meantime, the FA has renewed its partnership with Mars until 2022.

However, there is growing support from within football at a local level. Many clubs including Newcastle United, Charlton Athletic, Bristol City, Crystal Palace, Exeter City and others are working with local SUGAR SMART campaigns, promoting healthy eating through their Foundation Trusts and improving access to healthier food options at stadia. Millwall even took the decision to impose a voluntary sugar tax on soft drinks well before the UK Government implemented the national policy. Furthermore, just this May, the Government’s Health and Social Care Committee recognised the importance to de-associate junk food brands with sport, recommending that in the next round of the Government’s childhood obesity plan, it should: “include a commitment to end sponsorship by brands overwhelmingly associated with high fat, sugar and salt products of sports clubs, venues, youth leagues and tournaments”.

A 14 year-old boy would have to walk the length of 94 football pitches to burn off the energy in one chocolate bar.

A 14 year-old boy would have to walk the length of 94 football pitches to burn off the energy in one chocolate bar.

Individual clubs and (some of) their players acknowledge their ties with their local communities, including the role they play in inspiring healthier lifestyles, and this is evidenced in their community engagement work. Hopefully, this sense of public responsibility to fans and children everywhere permeates through the commercial echelons of football. Of course, fan ownership of clubs and Supporters Trusts can play a pivotal role in football’s stance on this issue in making responsible commercial decisions.

Reconsidering brand partnerships on health grounds is not without precedent – the FA announced last year an end to all sponsorships with betting companies. And until 2003, cigarette companies held partnerships across sport in the UK. Football bodies have shifted with the times and recognised their responsibility to their fans before, and it can certainly happen again with some concerted public pressure. But this cannot happen without fans and Supporters Trusts demanding a change.

If you agree that football is not a place for promoting unhealthy food to fans, especially children, then sign our letter to major football bodies including the FA and Premier League asking that they discontinue partnerships with unhealthy food brands. If you want to take grassroots action, then speak to your club or Supporters Trust about joining their local SUGAR SMART campaign.

Matthew Philpott, Executive Director, Healthy Stadia

Vera Zakharov, SUGAR SMART Campaign Coordinator, Sustain

Healthy Stadia works with governing bodies, stadium operators and clubs across Europe to develop sports venues as health promoting settings. Healthy Stadia specialises in developing evidence-based guidance and interventions addressing the key lifestyle risk factors of physical inactivity, poor diet and tobacco for stakeholders, benefitting the health of fans, staff and local communities.

SUGAR SMART is a campaign run by the charity Sustain encouraging local authorities, organisations, workplaces and individuals to reduce the amount of sugar we all consume. There are nearly 50 cities registered to run campaigns and over 900 organisations involved in reducing sugar, from schools to sports clubs, restaurants, hospitals, dental practices and workplaces.

Michael Viggars

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