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February 8, 2002

The hidden cost of sports sponsorship

Though the "right to carry cola" hardly ranks with the Bill of Rights, many visitors to Salt Lake City during this month's Winter Olympic Games will find it's a freedom they no longer possess. A California State University, Sacramento professor says the influence of corporate sponsorship is beginning to infringe on civil rights.

"The controls sponsors put on the Olympics and the host city are quite draconian," says Richard Batty, a professor of recreation and leisure studies who has done research on the costs of sports sponsorship. "They now require a 'clean zone' free of advertising. It raises real issues of civil rights. In many cases these are public areas and people are being told what they can wear or carry."

Sydney, for example, had boundaries around Olympic venues where visitors were not allowed to bring in competing sponsors' products. "There were even checkpoints to screen for 'bombs, knives and cans of Pepsi,' " he says. "Journalists had to tape over the brand names on their laptops and cameras if they were competitors of the official Olympic sponsor."

The cost of the maintaining the clean zone is borne by the city, even though the money from the official Olympic sponsors goes to the International Olympic Committee. And the Olympics aren't alone in bowing to sponsor pressure. Similar restrictions apply to many other major events like the NCAA Final Four, he adds.

"Sponsorship is always billed as 'win-win' - the sponsor gets associated with a team or event, and the team or event gets wads of cash. But there are costs on either side," he says. "It's not money for nothing, and the checks aren't for free."

Batty started his research during his previous position at the University of Otago in New Zealand when he assisted with the FIFA Under-19 World Soccer Championships. He was amazed at the demands the sponsors placed on the event, ranging from freebies to only having their brand names shown at the venue to changing the schedule of activities to fit their wishes.

With sponsorship, there is an expectation of giving up control, Batty says. It's not a simple one-time economic relationship. It has to build over time. And to maintain the relationship, both sides have to throw in sweeteners.

He notes that football has changed the pacing of the game to accommodate the needs of sponsors, pointing to the two-minute warning and TV timeouts. Other sports, such as basketball, have divided their game in quarters to satisfy the demands of sponsors and the media.

And there's another cost, Batty says, a cost that's hidden - the erosion of good will.

"The sponsor doesn't bear the cost straightaway but there's an imaginary line they can push supporters to," Batty says. "Baseball faced it when it considered putting logos on uniform sleeves. There was a huge outcry and the powers that be in baseball decided 'That's the line.'"

Though sponsorship issues occur in other areas of society, sports is the obvious extreme, since 80 percent of sponsorship is associated with sports. "The sports field is a contested terrain, a battle in and around the field as well as between the teams that are competing," Batty says.

Media assistance is available by calling the CSUS public affairs office at (916) 278-6156.

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