Elite sport sponsorship has emerged as one of the fastest growing forms of commercial marketing . Overt forms of marketing during sporting events include commercial break advertisements, uniform sponsorship, logos, broadcast sponsorship, sponsored placements, sponsored competitions, boarding and signage, sponsored match replays, and product endorsements [2–7]. Indirect forms of marketing include accessing membership lists, providing uniforms or vehicles to team members, or having sole rights to provide a certain product during a sporting event, such as Heineken’s “sole pouring rights” during the 2012 London Olympics [8, 9].
Sports sponsorship creates a range of valuable, and often inseparable, relationships between companies and the sporting teams and codes that they sponsor [6, 8, 10, 11]. Along with broad marketing goals of increased brand awareness , sporting events allow industry to align their product with an activity that is perceived as ‘healthy’ and ‘positive’ for the community, thus enabling them to improve perceptions of ‘corporate citizenship’ and perceived community contribution [2, 13, 14].
Despite calls for the regulation of the marketing of products that may pose short and/or long term risks for the health and wellbeing of some individuals (such as energy dense or unhealthy foods, tobacco, gambling and alcohol products) [2, 11] and subsequently defined in this paper as ‘risky products’, sporting codes regularly argue that their financial viability depends on sponsorship deals (including television broadcast rights) . For example, the mass commercialization of the Olympic Games (after concerns that the games would no longer be financially viable for most host cities) led to a vast increase in sponsorship of products that may have negative health impacts on the community – such as energy dense foods . The International Olympic Committee reportedly received close to USD $1 billion from the top eleven official sponsors (including Coca-Cola and McDonald's) of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and 2012 London Summer Games . Gambling ‘shirt sponsorship’ deals run into millions of dollars for teams in the English Premier League .
In Australia, gambling companies reportedly pay approximately AUD$2 million per season to align themselves with the Australian Football League (AFL) . In 2013, it was reported that Australian bookmaker Tom Waterhouse (TomWaterhouse.com) signed a $50 million, five year deal to become the National Rugby League’s gambling partner, with an additional $15 million deal with Australian free to air television Channel Nine . Carlton United Breweries are reportedly due to sign a $50 million deal to align with the Australian Football League for the next 10 years . Companies pay upwards of USD$3.5million for a 30 second advertising slot during the National Football League ‘Superbowl’ (including products such as Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and M&Ms), which not only attract national but international attention .
There has been growing support for the introduction of policies to reduce or restrict the amount of sponsorship for products that may pose health risks within elite sport [2, 6, 23, 24]. In 2013, and partly in response to growing community criticism of the promotion of gambling during Australian sporting matches, the Australian Senate Joint Select Committee on Gambling Reform, established an Inquiry into the promotion of gambling advertising during Australian sport . While the Inquiry is currently ongoing with the Report due in May 2013, a key line of questioning has been about the potential impact of marketing strategies on the wellbeing of children. Similarly, in 2010, the World Health Organisation developed 12 Recommendations aimed at protecting children from the marketing of food and non-alcohol beverages, which were adopted by the World Health Assembly in 2010 .
Researchers have also raised concerns about the alignment of ‘risky products’ and sporting events, with research indicating that these associations help to contribute to softening the perception of any risks associated with these products and may negatively impact on health and social outcomes [2, 27–32]. Research into the extent of the promotion of tobacco products during sporting matches was important in showing the scope of sports based tobacco promotions [33–35]; and how the tobacco industry used sports based sponsorship to circumvent wider restrictions on the promotion of tobacco products [36, 37]. Subsequent regulation of all types of promotions for tobacco products during sporting matches is seen by many as an important step forward in the anti-tobacco movement and in reducing smoking rates, particularly among younger people [35, 38].
Most recently, researchers have investigated the sports based marketing of products relating to three complex public health issues: 1) Obesity and nutrition (unhealthy foods and beverages- those products high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars, or salt) [2, 23] Alcohol misuse and binge drinking (alcohol products and stores) [10, 39]; and 3) Problem gambling (most commonly online sports betting products and lotteries) [4, 6, 10]. A range of studies have explored the role of marketing in encouraging ‘risky’ consumption patterns of unhealthy food, alcohol, and gambling products [32, 40, 41], including how these marketing strategies are placed within different socio-cultural contexts [32, 42, 43], how they target different socio-economic and demographic groups [23, 44, 45], and the impact different types of marketing strategies have on consumption patterns in different groups .
A small number of studies have explored the extent and content of alcohol, gambling and unhealthy food marketing during sports matches and the sponsorship of sporting teams. These studies have shown marketing for each of these products is both visible and embedded within sporting ‘match play’. Thomas and colleagues (2012) found there was an average of 50.5 episodes of marketing for gambling products during Australian Football League matches ; while Sherriff and colleagues (2010), found that advertising for unhealthy food and alcohol products was visible during 44% and 74% of game footage for three televised professional cricket events . Researchers have also examined the impact of sports based marketing on alcohol and unhealthy food product consumption. For example, researchers have shown that the amount and content of beer advertising during sporting matches influences adolescent vulnerability towards messages about the consumption of beer  and that sports sponsorship positively influences children’s perceptions of unhealthy food products and of family purchasing habits .
The Australian National Preventative Health Taskforce and the Australian Medical Association have also proposed changes to government policy to reduce people’s exposure to advertising, promotion and sponsorship of energy dense foods and alcohol [48, 49]. Some sporting codes have voluntarily chosen to restrict, in particular, alcohol sponsorship and promotion of sport. In 2012, twelve Australian sporting codes joined the ‘Be The Influence’ campaign, which replaced their alcohol sponsorship with government based sponsorship from alcohol taxes to combat alcohol abuse . However, the three major Australian sporting codes – the Australian Football League, National Rugby League, and Cricket Australia did not sign up to the initiative. There have also been smaller shifts in social responsibility practices from individual teams. In 2012 the Australian Football League’s Geelong Cats, and the Australian soccer ‘A’ League’s Melbourne Victory replaced industry based gambling sponsorship with government sponsorship to promote gamblers help services [51, 52].