Alcohol Bill will cut €8.5m sponsorship of arts events, says drinks industry

Festival organisers are nervous about new legislation that will curb drinks companies’ advertising

Alcohol sponsorship: Oliver Elhotz performing with the Clare Sands trio at the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival. Photograph:  Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Alcohol sponsorship: Oliver Elhotz performing with the Clare Sands trio at the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

 

For better or worse, regular attendees of festivals, concerts and cultural events in Ireland know it is almost impossible to avoid the presence of alcohol sponsorship at such gatherings.

Smirnoff vodka advertisements were prominent across Dublin’s Pride Week festivities over recent days, while other drink brands are highly visible during many of the summer’s other cultural events.

The drinks industry has long been opposed to elements of the yet-to-be-enacted Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015, such as “drinks curtains” that would separate alcohol from other goods in shops and minimum unit pricing.

Now, however, the industry warns that up to €8.5 million in essentially-needed sponsorship for more than 50 arts and cultural events around the country is under threat.

Under the stalled legislation, curbs would be placed on advertising that would prohibit any stylish depiction of alcoholic beverages in convivial settings, such as pubs or concerts, or in the presence of people.

The legislation was first put forward by Leo Varadkar during his time in the Department of Health, though Marcella Corcoran-Kennedy was rebuffed when she tried to get the legislation through the Oireachtas.

And the industry is concerned once again following Varadkar’s decision to point to the legislation by name just minutes after he was appointed Taoiseach.

Event organisers

“Our sponsorship would probably cover about a third of the overall costs, we couldn’t do without that,” says John Cleere, the director of the Kilkenny Roots Festival which attracts 10,000 people every May bank holiday weekend.

The involvement of Diageo was central to getting the festival off the ground in 1998. Now, Cleere is pessimistic about his chances of finding replacement funding if beverage companies lose interest in a more restricted environment.

Equally, he is similarly sceptical that the State will fill the gap, fearing that Irish bands who take their “first step on the ladder” during such festivals will now find it harder to get exposure.

“We have around and about 100 different gigs on the weekend, 75 of those would be free which we couldn’t do without the sponsorship. We’ve given opportunities to dozens, probably hundreds at this stage, of Irish bands.”

Galway festival

While declaring that “the show must go on” regardless of any proposed changes, Galway International Arts Festival chief executive John Crumlish frets about the possibility of losing long-held associations with key sponsors.

The Galway festival attracts over 200,000 patrons over two weeks every July, and its Big Top venue, which is attended by over-18s, is sponsored by distiller Absolut.

The festival’s website carries the logo of sponsors, but Crumlish says he has never received complaints from paying customers about the advertisement of alcoholic products.

Revellers at Saturday’s Pride parade in Dublin, which brought 30,000 people onto the streets including Mr Varadkar, were split on the topic when quizzed on their views by The Irish Times.

“I don’t think that there should be advertising in sports events for alcohol, or even in events like this. It’s just a bit in-your-face sometimes, especially with young people,” said Amanda Purneen from Cabinteely.

Her friend Nathan Barber took a different view, saying alcohol sponsorship carried out in a “sensitive and inclusive way” is welcome, but one Dublin resident of French extraction favoured moderation in all things.

“Everybody knows we all need sponsors. I don’t really have a problem with sponsors being alcohol producers but it would be good if there were a balance,” said Fanny Gendreau-Kelly.

France banned all alcohol sponsorship of cultural and sporting events in the early 1990s, though it was unable to stop Carlsberg featuring prominently during the Euro 2016 championships.

Nevertheless, the French authorities do ban foreign and local teams from carrying drinks company logos on their kits when they play in France during international competitions.

Private partnerships

The Alcohol Beverage Federation Ireland (ABFI) says that firms which sponsor cultural and sporting events spend three to five times the sponsorship sum on advertising their involvement.

“If advertising a sponsorship becomes problematic or restricted, then the value of the original sponsorship agreement (for both the sponsor and the event) becomes significantly devalued.

“Due to a limited pool of sponsorship opportunities, private partnerships are hugely important to cultural activity in Ireland, and the contribution it makes to society,” said the drinks association

“If advertising a sponsorship becomes problematic or restricted, then the value of the original sponsorship agreement (for both the sponsor and the event) becomes significantly devalued,” it warned.

Alternative sponsors

Punchestown Racecourse general manager, Dick O’Sullivan will be one of those most affected by advertising curbs, since track advertising by alcohol firms would be one of the things that would fall foul.

Some of the gaps could be filled, but only some: “You can replace a sponsor who is doing something else, a sponsor that is making specialised wear or somebody who is a tourism body, or whatever it is.”

However, alcohol firms are large, and have deep pockets. Possible replacements are smaller, the type of people who might be able to sponsor a race, but not a meeting.

Punchestown’s flagship festival – Ireland’s Cheltenham, in the eyes of fans – does not have any alcohol sponsorship per se, but Guinness holds the rights to sell alcohol at the course, a contract taken annually.