Betting sponsorship puts American sport in the mass addiction business again

An NFL game between the San Francisco 49ers and the St. Louis Cardinals played in 1986 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco shows how prominent tobacco advertising was in the era.(Photo by David Madison/Getty Images)

In sports marketing, we talk a lot about passion. Specifically, the passion of fans and how important it is to understand, enable and leverage this passion.

This has become a cliché, but like most clichés has a ring of truth, because sport does inspire extraordinary passion, and that passion sells: replica shirts, newspapers, pay-TV, and pretty much anything else.

That’s why brands are so drawn to sport, in the hope that some of that passion rubs off on them, but the truth is that sport and sports marketing is also about addiction – about trying to create addicts. Addicted to playing sport. Addicted to watching it. Addicted to paying for it.

I freely admit, for example, that I’ve been addicted to my hometown club, Halifax Town, since I first saw them play as a wide-eyed seven-year-old in 1969. It was a 0-0 draw against Bradford City, but that was it. I was hooked. And I’ve subsequently spent far more time and money on Halifax Town than is probably good for me, and always will.

This goes way beyond passion – this is addiction. Passion is fleeting, addiction is enduring. And I’m far from alone. There are billions like me (although mystifyingly few Halifax Town fans).

Sport is brilliant at creating addicts, and the inconvenient truth is that this is why sport has always attracted brands whose business is also about addiction.

Right now it’s betting brands but tobacco wrote the playbook. Trading cards featuring baseball players first appeared in cigarette packs in America in the 1870s. By the early 20th century, American tobacco companies were featuring athletics, golf, swimming and tennis along with baseball and football in ads claiming cigarettes would enhance performance.

Nellie Fox of the Chicago White Sox promoting chewing tobacco on a poster issued in 1955 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. (Photo Reproduction by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

Between the wars, every American baseball team had a cigarette sponsor, and its biggest stars, including Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, starred in cigarette ads.

The 1950s saw the increasingly popular National Football League sign Marlboro as its major television sponsor and permit players to appear in tobacco ads, and athletes were everywhere in cigarette ads reassuring an increasingly anxious public and downplaying the links between smoking and lung cancer.

An NFL game between the San Francisco 49ers and the St. Louis Cardinals played in 1986 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco shows how prominent tobacco advertising was in the era.(Photo by David Madison/Getty Images)

But by the 1960s the tide was turning. Despite the American tobacco companies attempting to head off legislation by adopting a voluntary code eschewing the use of athletes, in 1971 Congress banned cigarette advertising on TV and radio.

That of course was far from the end of the story. TV had discovered that live sport could draw audiences like nothing else, and as a result two things became inevitable.

The first was that brands would want to get in on the action, the second was that sport would want brands to pay for the privilege. Someone just needed to figure out a way to make it happen, and the result was the sponsorship of televised sporting events.

Having been outlawed from advertising on TV, tobacco used televised sports sponsorship to pile back in. If it was televised sport, the chances are it had a cigarette sponsor.

Looking back it seems incredible how prevalent it was. The numbers were staggering. By the 1990s, for example, RJ Reynolds, makers of Winston cigarettes, was sponsoring over 2,700 American sporting events every year.

Legislation finally ended it in 2010, but now legislation has opened up a new alliance which could see it happen all over again, in the shape of American sport’s growing embrace of betting sponsorship.

Only at light speed compared to tobacco.

Will lessons be learned from the tobacco era?

For sure. As they no doubt will be from European sport’s experience, where soccer in particular has become totally dominated by betting sponsorship, but seems unwilling to do anything about it, leaving it instead to the broadcasters, like Sky introducing ad blockers for betting ads. But American sport will once again be in the mass addiction business, along with the rest of the world.

Will sport ever be able to say no for itself?

Don’t bet on it just yet.

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