The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) reports that three out of four American families with school-aged children have at least one child participating in organized sports. These young athletes and fans of professional sports make up a large portion of a growing sports marketing industry’s audience. Many televised and online commercials are geared toward American youths, but unfortunately, many of the products sponsoring sports organizations and pro athletes are unhealthy foods and beverages.
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Sports Marketing: A Multibillion-Dollar Industry
Sports markets continue to grow. The North American sports market is projected to increase from $67.3 billion in 2016 to $78.5 billion in 2021. During that same time span, sports media rights, ticket sales, sports merchandising, and sports sponsorships are poised to experience a measured growth.
The value of youth sports is also projected to have significant growth. According to the private firm WinterGreen Research, the American youth sports market is worth $15.3 billion as of 2017. This represents a 55% growth since 2010.
Sports Sponsorships and Unhealthy Brands
The 2015 study Sports Sponsorships of Food and Nonalcoholic Beverages published in the medical journal Pediatrics analyzed Nielson audience data to find the 10 sports organizations with the highest TV audience among 2- to 17-year-olds. The study found that pro sports leagues had roughly 412 million 17-and-under viewers as of 2015. They also discovered that food and nonalcoholic beverage companies were the second-largest group of pro sports league sponsors. Unfortunately, 76% of food products used in sports organization-sponsored ads were unhealthy, and 52.4% of beverages used in the same context were sugar-sweetened.
Food and Beverage Brands Sponsoring Sports Organizations
The pro sports organizations featuring unhealthy food and drink sponsors are widespread. The Olympics feature McDonald’s and Coca-Cola as sponsors. Coca-Cola also sponsors the NBA, where it’s joined by Pepsi, Taco Bell, and Nabisco/Kraft. The NFL is sponsored by Pepsi, Frito-Lay, Gatorade, and McDonald’s. Pepsi, Frito-Lay, and Gatorade also sponsor MLB, as does Taco Bell. College athletics also contribute to this issue: the NCAA’s sponsors include Coca-Cola, Buffalo Wild Wings, Reese’s, and Nabisco.
Major Athletes with Food and Beverage Brand Endorsements
Unhealthy food and drink sponsorships also drill down to an individual athlete level. Prominent current and former superstars such as LeBron James, Peyton Manning, Serena Williams, Chris Paul, and David Beckham endorse a wide range of junk food products, including McDonald’s, Oreo, Gatorade, Powerade, and Burger King.
Food Brand Marketing in Sports-Themed Video Games
The virtual playing field isn’t immune from the presence of unhealthy food and drink brands. EA Sports’ popular Madden NFL game features food brand marketing from Doritos, KFC, and Snickers. Additionally, M&M’s has a marketing presence in EA Sports’ NASCAR game as well as M&M Nascar Kart Racing for the Nintendo Wii.
Effects on Childhood Health
Youth Exposure to Athlete Food Endorsements
Promoting unhealthy food and drinks by well-known and physically fit celebrities sends a mixed message to children about health and diet. This conflict is quite prevalent in the unhealthy beverage category. 93% of the 46 beverages endorsed by athletes had all of their calories come from added sugar.
Sports Drinks and Childhood Obesity
Obesity among youths has more than tripled since the late 1970s. Today, 20% of school-aged children and youths — an age range of 6 to 19 — are overweight.
Sports drinks are routinely marketed to be part of an active lifestyle. Unfortunately, what’s not marketed is their lack of nutritional worth. The approximate nutritional value per 8-ounce serving of sports drinks consists of 50 calories, 110 milligrams of sodium, and 41 grams of sugar. According to the Growing Up Today Study II, each daily sports drink serving predicted greater increases in body mass index (BMI) over time in girls ages 9 to 16.
Organizations and Initiatives for Healthy Marketing to Children
Several groups have formed to fight the scourge of unhealthy food and drink marketing to youth. The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) is a voluntary self-regulation program in which participants make a public pledge to only advertise foods that meet the CFBAI’s core principles and uniform nutrition criteria to kids under 12. Another organization is Food Marketing Workgroup, a network of over 225 organizations and academic experts devoted to eliminating harmful food marketing geared toward children and individuals vulnerable to obesity. The World Health Organization (WHO) is also involved in the movement, as it provides recommendations for lowering the impact on children of the marketing of unhealthy foods and non-alcoholic beverages that are high in trans-fatty acids, saturated fats, salt, and free sugars.
Young fans and athletes have favorite teams and pro athletes they admire, and they want to be like them and do what they do. With much of the sports sponsorships for athletes and their organizations promoting unhealthy junk food, children and youths are confused about what makes a healthy diet. Therefore, it’s crucial for parents to be aware of the unhealthy foods marketed to their kids. It’s also vital for major sports leagues and their athletic stars to take responsibility for the products they endorse.
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