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In light of a recent decision by NBA owners, the Chicago Bulls are now able to use United Center's courtside banners for liquor advertisements. 

NBA opens door for courtside liquor ads

by Kate Hollencamp
Jan 22, 2009

Faced with financial troubles, the impoverished sometimes turn to booze to soften the blow.

But some of the latest ones to lean on liquor for support are millionaires who appear in countless living rooms each week.

In a move to increase revenue during a sluggish economy, National Basketball Association owners recently voted to repeal an 18-year ban on courtside advertising by hard liquor companies. The decision came the same week that a British medical journal published a review concluding that alcohol advertising increases the likelihood that adolescents will start drinking.

“There’s no question that young people in America have great affection for the stars of the NBA and look to them for direction,” said George Hacker, director of the Alcohol Policies Project, a program sponsored by the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest. “It’s a somewhat dubious connection.”

Hacker is also active in the Campaign for Alcohol-Free Sports TV, an organization founded in 2003 whose mission is endorsed by several hundred coaches and athletic directors. Members include Tom Osborne, the University of Nebraska Athletic Director and a former U. S. representative, who worked in Congress to eliminate alcohol advertising entirely from NCAA sports.

While beer consumption is the norm at some sporting events, advertising hard liquor is less pervasive. 

"At one time, alcohol and athletics were seen as two things that didn’t go well together,” Osborne said. “And now, I’m afraid, the connection is subtle, but it's certainly out there.”

“The whole problem is, it associates an activity that is generally helpful for young people, that is a fundamental tool for social development, camaraderie and teamwork [with liquor],” Hacker said. “They shouldn’t grow up with the notion that liquor is part of that development.”

The vote, which required a three-fourths majority to pass, allows the NBA to join Major League Baseball, the NHL and NASCAR in allowing spirits advertising within camera view, according to the Sports Business Journal.

Eventually these ads will seem like background, said Hacker, “anesthetizing viewers to some of the serious negative effects.” He also said the NBA vote could set off a competitive round of ever-increasing beer and liquor ads. 

The liquor industry has been aggressively promoting its ads to as many outlets as possible, Hacker said. And while some national broadcast networks rarely air ads for hard alcohol, he said, “there's been quite a bit of slippage as different leads look for new revenue sources, particularly today."

In Chicago, it’s unclear whether the Bulls will display hard liquor ads alongside their players' bench.

“Certainly this new opportunity in the category will lead to opportunities for increased revenue for the teams,” said Scott Sonnenberg, Bulls Director of Corporate Partnership.  “And time will tell whether we will sell courtside ads to hard liquor companies.”

Sonnenberg offered no comment on how Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf voted on the advertising ban. But he said the team currently works with Ketel One and Jose Cuervo as naming rights partners in a restaurant and bar in the United Center.

Ads on the team’s scorer's table represent less then 10 percent of the Bulls’ overall ad revenue, according to Sonnenberg. 

The financial benefit to the team is as yet unclear. But the potential social cost to young people was recently spelled out in an article published in the online edition of Alcohol and Alcoholism, the journal of Britain's Medical Council on Alcohol. The article, which reviewed 13 studies from various countries, is titled “Impact of Alcohol Advertising and Media Exposure on Adolescent Alcohol Use.”

The review found “consistent evidence to link alcohol advertising with the [adoption] of drinking among non-drinking young people, and increased consumption among their drinking peers.” The study echoes similar conclusions in earlier studies of impact of tobacco and food marketing on young people.

“The more alcohol ads kids see, the more likely they are to drink,” said Dr. David Jernigan of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth. The American organization studied youth exposure to alcohol advertising on TV between 2001 and 2007. 

With NBA ratings on the rise, more viewers will be seeing those new alcohol ads. ESPN reports an average of 1.725 million viewers per NBA telecast – up 21 percent for the same point last year.

The league is also attempting to lure more fans by broadcasting the events leading up to the Feb. 15 All-Star Game  in 3-D movie theaters throughout the U. S. The broadcasts will include a three-point shoot-out and a slam dunk contest.

"There's no question in my mind that if you look at the NBA overall, they have a great number of programs that appeal to young people," Hacker said, citing the large number of charitable youth organizations the teams work with. “It’s a terrible hypocrisy.”

NBA officials were unwilling to comment publicly about the new advertising policy until its guidelines are finalized. The league said those should be completed this week or next.