Revealed: how alcohol is at the heart of local sport

Revealed: how alcohol is at the heart of local sport
Published: 
March 2018

Millions of Australians are involved in community sport, yet clubs’ existence often depends on alcohol sales and sponsorship.

Whether we are kicking a ball around the pitch or watching the match on TV, sport is a national obsession for Australians. Cricket, rugby and Australian Rules football in particular play a central role in our lives and give people of all ages an opportunity to improve their fitness, build confidence and meet new friends.

Yet behind sport’s healthy image lies a hard-drinking tradition. From alcohol sponsorships and promotions to the spectators queuing at the bar and post-match binge drinking by the players, alcohol is embedded in sports culture at almost every level.

While the link with professional sports has been widely reported, less is known about the impact on community clubs, which are the lifeblood of Australian sport and are run largely by volunteers. Around 14 per cent of adults did voluntary work with sport and recreation organisations in 2010, according to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. 

Many of these clubs rely on alcohol sales or sponsorships for part of their income stream. Researchers from UQ Business School found that not only is drinking widespread within them, but it is also accessible to underage players in senior teams, especially where it is part of socialising after the game.

They also found that some managers encouraged drinking. As one said about the teams: “They’ll have a bit of a blow out, away from families . . . I encourage that because you just want them to stick around, particularly when we are losing, we want them to bond a little bit and get to know each other because it’s all part of being in a team environment.”

As part of her doctoral research, Holly Thompson interviewed 16 administrators in cricket, rugby or football clubs – typically, all were male and all but one were volunteers – as part of a project with Sports Marketing expert Dr Sarah Kelly and Social Marketing expert Dr Josephine Previte. The team are researching responsible alcohol management in community sport, and the influence of senior teams on younger players. 

They found that, while most clubs only opened the bar on “game day” and special occasions, alcohol was an integral part of key events and administrators believed that, income aside, it provided important benefits by encouraging membership participation and retention.

“Administrators considered the liquor licence as important in creating a setting where club members could socialise and a reason for people to stay at the club longer,” says Holly.

“This consensus view clearly demonstrates the pro-alcohol environment created by community sports clubs and illustrates a belief that ‘alcohol is harmless, socially normative and essential to having a good time’.”

Alcohol sales in clubs are subject to a variety of regulations including state licensing laws and state sport associations, as well as voluntary standards such as the Good Sports Accreditation Program which helps clubs reduce their reliance on alcohol sales.

Five clubs in this study did not have a club alcohol policy, arguing that league policies were sufficient. Some administrators said they did not want to dictate to members or that they didn’t have time. Typically, they relied on players or leaders to set the standards.

As one said: “People know what they can and can’t do. We don’t have set rules, but we just expect them . . . not to overstep the mark.”

Yet this view runs contrary to a national report in 2016 which found that governance in sport needed to be improved at grassroots level, including the issue of alcohol. And Sarah argues: “When there is no explicit communication, the club leaves individuals to interpret what is acceptable behavior, and yet the club is liable for governing safety standards and risks, in particular protecting vulnerable underage members.”

While statistics show that alcohol consumption levels in sport clubs are higher than in general society, the club officials interviewed felt that they were successfully managing consumption.

Josephine says: “There is a feeling amongst some club management officials that regulations, such as having a blood alcohol content of 0.05 to drive, have negatively impacted the club by making it more difficult for members to socialise after a game. Whilst acknowledging that the regulations are for the safety of the community, some also expressed some feelings of loss because clubs were no longer a community hub.”

However, the research team acknowledge the pressures facing club managers. Holly adds: “Volunteer administrators must comply with legal restrictions upon selling alcohol while ensuring the club’s financial viability, which often depends on alcohol sales.

“They are expected to provide a healthy, positive setting for the community, which runs counter to evidence of excessive and even dangerous alcohol consumption on club premises. On top of that, they are the leaders of club culture and wardens of safety and governance.”

The researchers suggest that clubs could use social marketing to communicate standards and build a culture of responsible alcohol use, although they should target management first to achieve buy-in from administrators. Social marketers could also highlight the complexities of the current rules.

Sarah says: “Regulators, sports associations and policy makers need to work together to find ways to help clubs reduce the cultural and financial reliance upon alcohol, and promote health. Managing this critical health and social issue is all the more complex given that many teams are a mix of underage and adult players. We need a more unified and sustainable effort if we are ever to solve the problem of alcohol in sport.”