Unhealthy partners? Time to rethink football and junk food brands

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At our AGM last month, FSF members voted to support action on football's marketing of sugary brands to children. Here Matthew Philpott from Healthy Stadia tells us more about the issue...

As we start a new season with the familiar feelings of blind optimism and - for some at least - a touch of dread, we at Healthy Stadia have already been celebrating our new partnership with the FSF on trying to protect our children and young people from junk-food marketing in football.

“Oh no” we hear you cry – the nanny state have sent the health police to the match! What’s next? Ban the pie? Couscous for half time and a nice cup of green tea?! No – not a word of it. We are all just normal fans who, in a number of cases, are pretty partial to a decent pie and pint on matchdays ourselves. Sure, we think that clubs could do more to offer a wider selection of healthier options on matchdays, but we are not going to tell clubs what they can sell and fans what they can and can’t eat.

No, our beef (ahem…) is with the commercial partnerships clubs, league operators and football associations have with junk food and drinks that either directly or indirectly influence our children. Here in the UK, watching football at a stadium, and in particular on broadcast media, 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 now no doubt that the UK is facing a growing child obesity crisis. New data has revealed that one in three 10- and 11-year-olds are classed as overweight. This is a fast ticking health and economic time bomb - UK-wide NHS costs that are attributable to obesity are now projected to reach an eye-watering £9.7 billion by 2050.

While there are a host of factors that contribute to childhood obesity, and no doubt parental and personal responsibility plays an important role in this, multiple studies have found that junk food advertisements have a big impact on children's consumption patterns. In May this year new research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that 50% of all food and drink related TV advertisements seen by children aged between four and 15 are for products high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS).

This is why the UK has established advertising rules banning unhealthy food ads during children's television, and yet despite the big 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.

Cadbury's now partners the Premier League through its Golden Boot and Golden Glove sponsorship, energy drink Carabao is now the title sponsor of the League Cup, while 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 just last week McDonald's announced a four-year extension to its partnership with all of the Home Nations FAs, promising children “five million hours of fun football provided by 2022”.

Of course these partnerships are not incidental. By linking themselves to clubs, players, leagues, and grassroots participation, these companies are attempting to project a ‘halo effect’ by associating their brands with sporty and active lifestyles, thereby avoiding the public scrutiny of their contribution to the growing obesity 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!

We well recognise some of the excellent work undertaken by the community functions of UK leagues and clubs to increase levels of physical activity and educate children on the importance of healthier eating, and we actively work with many community trusts on delivery of these projects such as our Give Up Loving Pop (GULP) programme.

Earlier this year, Healthy Stadia and the SUGAR SMART campaign drafted an open letter addressed to the FA, the Premier League and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, along with the other Home Nations FAs, asking them to reconsider future partnerships with companies promoting HFSS products, in particular the increasing prevalence of ‘sports’ drinks and ‘energy’ drinks sponsoring football.

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. None of the football bodies have issued any formal responses to the letter. In the meantime the Home Nations renewed their deals with McDonalds, and the FA renewed its major partnership with Mars until 2022.

Fan groups can play a pivotal role which is why we want to work with the FSF and its members to add their voices to stopping any future partnerships between associations, leagues and HFSS brands.

Reconsidering such partnerships on health grounds is not without precedent – the FA announced last year an end to all sponsorship with betting companies, whilst until 2003 cigarette companies held partnerships across sport in the UK. Football clubs and governing bodies have shifted with the times and recognised their responsibility to their fans before, and we can certainly make it happen again.

We look forward to hearing from individual fans, supporter groups and clubs on how we can cut junk-food out of football sponsorship and protect the health of our children and young people.  

But rest assured – that Chicken Balti Pie will still be there when you are back at the match next week!

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don't necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn't be attributed to the FSF.

Thanks to PA Images for the image used in this article.