Alcohol and sport: how did it come to this?

It’s day two of the fifth Ashes Test on January 4 this year. Mitchell Johnson’s inked arm catapults forward, launching a leather-clad missile down the SCG pitch. The ball digs in, rises furiously and smashes into the grille of debutant English batsman Gary Ballance.

Unlike many of you, I wasn’t enjoying this moment of quintessential colonial rivalry with an Australian sun blazing down and a cold frothy in hand. I was at a dank pub in the Scottish Highlands where the only bouncers were the raindrops off the roof, celebrating with the only Aussie beverage the establishment served, a Barossa shiraz.

As the Sydney Test unfolded I was visiting distilleries and breweries by day, and watching the game by night over reds, stouts and single malts. And I have to tell you, the whole experience was glorious. With nary an Aussie lager in sight.

Now we’re approaching the pointy end of the local football season, and week to week you trudge off in the freezing cold and rain to a game hoping your team might give you something to cheer about. It’s in these moments that I often think back to the Highlands because it’s freezing and I’m thirsty, yet all that’s available is chilled, watery dross.

It’s got me thinking: how did it come to this?

An inseparable pair

Booze and sport have shared an enduring partnership in Australia. The big beverage companies have developed a proud relationship with major sporting codes, injecting big dollars into the games they sponsor. The battle for pourage rights at major stadiums is often vigorously contested, and brands profit considerably from connecting their products to one of Australia’s most popular pastimes.

Under the influence

Giant beverage companies are uniquely bound to sport. An initiative created by the previous government, Be The Influence – Tackling Binge Drinking, put this relationship to the test. It allocated $25 million to sporting codes who refused sponsorship from alcohol companies. Sixteen smaller Australian sporting codes signed up, but three of our biggest codes didn’t. I bet you can guess which ones.

But spare a thought for those nations hosting the World Cup. Since 1986, Budweiser has been the World Cup’s official beer. This posed a problem for the Brazilian government, which outlawed the sale of alcohol in its football stadiums in 2003 to prevent violence and deaths occurring in and around matches. Budweiser is one of the World Cup’s biggest sponsors, so before the event kicked off, FIFA demanded the laws be waived for the duration of the tournament to get the Bud flowing. The Brazilian government complied.

Russia and then Qatar (the latter which “outplayed” the Aussie bid) are next in line to host the world’s biggest tournament. Both countries also have bans on the sale of alcohol in their stadiums. That’ll be interesting to watch.

The unthinkable?

That if Australian sports stadiums went down the same path? That seems unlikely because, for better or worse, enjoying a drink at the game is, for many, a part of the Australian sporting experience. Sponsorship dollars will continue to determine what’s served in our stadiums, and crucially, so will the behaviour of the crowds that populate them (if you’re a sports fan, I hope you like mid-strength beer).

But the Australian palate is slowly changing. I was recently talking to a successful bloke in his mid-forties after a whisky tasting. He told me that 15 years ago he would’ve been embarrassed to order anything but a standard tap lager when catching a game at his local. He now enjoys stouts and red wines during the winter, and hoppy IPAs in the summer. And when I asked him what he drinks when goes to a game, he said “coffee or water”. I guess you can’t win in every arena.

Where do you watch major sport? What do you drink when you’re there, and what would you drink if you could?

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This article Alcohol and sport: how did it come to this? was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.