Sport Management, Nutrition and Ethics

A vlog on the implications of corporate involvement in youth sport. Sport Management academics need to consider their place in condoning unhealthy food sponsorship.

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McDonald’s sponsorship of UK football

The Football Associations of the United Kingdom need to change their relationship with McDonald’s.

One strand of the McDonald’s sponsorship agreement with the UK’s Football Associations appears to be “Dress the kids in McDonald’s clothing whenever possible.”

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Children wearing McDonald’s uniforms. Also, title image. Source: http://www.mcdonalds.co.uk

We are all familiar with the corporate logic of “get them when they’re young” in order to build brand loyalty. But the McDonald’s strategy of adorning young football players in McDonald’s branded clothing is surely an unacceptable practice.

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A football celebrity with children in McDonald’s uniforms. Source: http://www.mcdonalds.co.uk

McDonald’s calls itself a “community partner” in this extravaganza – anything to distance itself from the idea that there is a profit motive behind this apparently benevolent act.

Rapp and Jespersen (2015) would argue this practice is entangled marketing: “For companies to achieve long-term relationships with customers, they must go far beyond setting engagement as the goal. … Once entangled, a pair of particles remain inextricably connected. They never let go of one another, no matter their distance apart.” McDonald’s accomplish this by giving hundreds of thousands of young people with “their first kit”. Occasionally they have celebrity role models tell groups of young players what a special day it is when they receive their first kit. For example, see this recent article which celebrates an English player and “McDonald’s ambassador” handing over “brand new kit” to an under 12’s side.

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Football celebrity distributing McDonald’s branded football kits. youtube.com/user/HeresToWhatMatters

One football administrator enthusiastically recounted that “McDonald’s have provided football kit now … to over 10,000 teams in the last 2 years in Wales.”

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Football celebrity distributing McDonald’s branded football kits. youtube.com/user/HeresToWhatMatters

But these shirts are not “donations” at all. They are explicitly and specifically branded with the McDonald’s arches. The children become miniature Trojan horses, and their target is the other players around them. The difference is that the “invaders” are displayed loud and clear. The McDonald’s brand is there for all the other children to see throughout their football sessions. The brand exposure, while not measured on the McDonald’s web page, must be enormous. By allowing (and perhaps requiring!) these football shirts to be worn the Football Associations are subtly condoning and promoting McDonald’s as a normal and positive element of the sports arena.

Through the McDonald’s FA Charter Standard kit scheme, young children are exposed to McDonald’s branding. Clubs that live up to the FA’s safeguarding policy are rewarded with free kits which expose children to the McDonald’s. Moreover, with the FA’s blessing, McDonald’s is bestowed legitimacy and authority on safeguarding children and harm minimisation. The irony is troubling.  When a company (such as McDonald’s) is banned from advertising their products to children on tv, this should be sufficient evidence to consider them as unfit to sponsor a supposedly health-enhancing sport. 

Policy Issues

The UK government’s current approach to legislation on youth sport sponsorship is clearly very lax. The Government’s current “Sporting Future” policy is full of praise for “voluntary agreements”:

“Sponsorship is an area where a number of sports, and individual clubs, have adopted a responsible approach, for example around sponsorship by companies marketing alcohol or high fat sugar and salt (HFSS) foods. We will continue to discuss with sports the scope for voluntary agreements in this area. The government’s Childhood Obesity Strategy, due to be published in early 2016, is also likely to contain measures relating to HFSS foods.”

While there is a UK law banning junk food advertising targeted at children, the loophole whereby sports organisations can receive funding from HFSS companies to promote their organisations to children should be closed. If it is not legislated against, or if national governing bodies do not end these practices themselves, they will be increasingly implicated in the poor health of the nation.

Jill McDonald, the McDonald’s chief executive wrote that “Ten years ago, we took the decision to invest the majority of our UK sponsorship funds into football and crucially into the grassroots of the game.” She also wrote that she is “immensely proud of what our partnerships with each of the Football Associations has achieved”, However, I am concerned about what is not measured and displayed on the website. These questions should surely form any future evaluation of McDonald’s partnerships with youth sport.

Exactly why did McDonald’s choose to brand the shirts they “donated”?

How many cumulative minutes have children been exposed to McDonald’s branding at training sessions?

How were ideas about health and nutrition dealt with at these sessions?

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McDonald’s brand football kits. youtube.com/user/HeresToWhatMatters

The UK Government will soon publish its new Obesity Policy. I suspect the government will not legislate against food companies invading childhood sport spaces with their branding. However, with the disastrous effects of childhood obesity, either McDonald’s or the various Football Associations need to end this insidious practice. These branded shirts are advertising. It is time to remove them from circulation.