Villanova Sports Law Blog
Giving Athletes a Shot at Sponsorship of Alcohol Brands
By: Ian Daniels
Just in time for the conclusion of the NBA’s seventy-third season, the Association is celebrating with a new official spirit partner. The world’s best-selling Cognac, Hennessy, is the new official spirit partner of the National Basketball Association.  The multi-year collaboration between the two global brands comes at a time where alcohol sponsorship for professional sports leagues is reaching its height. In 2015, the National Football League extended its sponsorship deal with Anheuser-Busch InBev through 2022 for about $250 million per year.  Just this past year, the NFL even began loosening its restrictions on player sponsorships as it relates to alcohol vendors.  But with the leagues continuing their lucrative partnerships with alcohol brands, it should be considered whether the active players should have the opportunity to be individually sponsored by the brands of their choosing.
As of right now, active players in the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball are allowed to be portrayed in ads for their respective league’s official alcohol partners but with a few caveats. The new NFL provision allows active players to be featured in ads by alcohol brands “who have existing team relationships” but players must be in uniform and cannot make direct product endorsements.  The NBA and MLB have been using player likenesses in local ads pertaining to team alcohol partners dating back years, with a cut of the money paid out by the sponsors going to the players’ unions.  The unions have, however, begun to be more aggressive in their pursuance of deals for players due to the mutual benefit to both brands having name recognition in the cities being advertised in.  The ability to advertise players directly does not come on the heels of any new regulation decisions, however. There actually is no federal regulation completely prohibiting active athletes from being used in advertisements at all. The restrictions that apply are judged by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, on a case-by-case basis; the key criteria being whether or not the ad is “socially irresponsible” or not. 
Despite the loosening of the restrictions, it still seems clear that the leagues only want players advertising for official league sponsors and understandably so. The NBA infamously had J.R. Smith, then on the Cleveland Cavaliers, cover up his Supreme tattoo or face a fine because the brand was not an official apparel sponsor of the league.  Actions like this by leagues, to some, seem fair. If you are playing in the game, you cannot advertise for a brand that is not an official sponsor of your respective league (other than footwear). Official partners could see the allowance of this as a conflict of interest, especially if they are the exclusive partner in that category. Despite this not applying to brands athletes are partnering with on their own time, this standard does not seem to extend to alcohol sponsorship.
Leagues are obviously reluctant to allow their players to be sponsored by alcohol for good reason. Professional sports leagues want to reach the widest array of viewers possible. This potential demographic includes children, and a league would not want to be responsible for a child being in danger because they saw their favorite athlete endorsing an alcohol product. On the other hand, athletes should have the freedom to increase their streams of revenue as they see fit. As Charles Barkley believes, they are under no obligation to be anyone’s role model. If someone wants to pay them to endorse their product on their own time, who are the leagues to stop them?
Combat sports seem to have embraced the idea of individuals being sponsored by brands, possibly by necessity. Conor McGregor’s Property No. 12 Whiskey could be seen for every second of Fury vs. Wilder 2 boxing match while situated directly in the center of the canvas.  The UFC has added the whiskey brand to their canvas for fights as well.  While this may be by necessity because Conor owns the brand, and children may be less of a target audience for combat sports (but probably not), athletes in more mainstream sports could start looking to alcohol ownership as a new frontier for sponsorship. Lebron James has already made his love of wine quite evident. 
The moral ground the question of athlete alcohol sponsorship stands on is shaky. Even if it could make athletes more money for their likeness, a child’s idol advertising alcohol to millions could be seen as problematic and dangerous. Parents certainly will not want their kids having any interest in alcohol because they saw their local star athlete on a billboard. Leagues also have to exercise some form of corporate responsibility. They are fully aware that kids grow up loving the teams, players, and sport, and their impressionability is something to be cognizant of. But does that mean athletes should be barred completely from making a living as they see fit?
There is an argument to be made that athletes should also be allowed to utilize the free market. Athletic careers can be cut short at any second, and during their playing career is usually when athletes’ peak earning potential begins and ends. It seems wrong to deprive an athlete of the opportunity to make money in a way that any other person could theoretically earn a living off of. If the leagues are selling beer to attendees and advertising alcohol to millions of viewers countless times a game for billions of dollars, how is it any different from a player endorsing a product that they personally enjoy? It is hypocritical for the leagues themselves to restrict players from doing something they do themselves.
Although it does not seem like the restrictions on athlete alcohol sponsorships will be completely loosened any time soon, the leagues are trending in the right direction to break that barrier. Such a trajectory’s moral implications have to be considered when athletes have the capacity to reach millions at a time. It is doubtful, and maybe rightfully so, that active players in America’s major sports will ever be able to endorse alcohol the way the leagues are able to.
 Chris Cason, Hennessy Becomes The Official Spirit Of The NBA, Forbes, (Feb. 10, 2020), https://www.forbes.com/sites/chriscason/2020/02/10/hennessy-becomes-the-official-spirit-of-the-nba/#1cc7fef13ba5
 Darren Rovell, Anheuser-Busch, NFL extend partnership through 2022, ESPN, (Nov. 4, 2015), https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/14050224/anheuser-busch-nfl-extend-partnership-2022-15-billion
 Bottoms Up: NFL Relaxing Alcohol Sponsorship Policy This Season, Sports Business Daily, (May 30, 2019), https://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Daily/Issues/2019/05/30/Marketing-and-Sponsorship/NFL-Alcohol.aspx
 E.J. Schultz, THE NFL HAS LOOSENED ITS ALCOHOL AD POLICY TO ALLOW ACTIVE PLAYERS IN BEER ADS, Ad Age, (May 30, 2019), https://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/nfl-has-loosened-its-alcohol-ad-policy-allow-active-players-beer-ads/2174566
 E.J. Schultz, AB-InBev Strikes Deals to Put More Sports Pros Beer Ads, Overcoming Long-Held Resistance, Ad Age, (Sept. 19, 2018), https://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/ab-inbev-strikes-deals-put-sports-pros-beer-ads/314980
 Michael McCann, Could the NBA Force J.R. Smith to Cover Up His Supreme Tattoo?, Sports Illustrated, (Sept. 30, 2018), https://www.si.com/nba/2018/09/30/jr-smith-supreme-tattoo-nba-rules
 Jeffrey Harris, Conor McGregor Promotes Proper 12 Whiskey Sponsorship at Fury vs. Wilder 2, (Feb. 22, 2020) https://411mania.com/mma/conor-mcgregor-hypes-proper-12-whiskey-sponsor-fury-wilder-2/
 Michael Bartiromo, Conor McGregor's 'Proper' Irish whiskey to sponsor his UFC fights, Fox News, (Sept. 21, 2018), https://www.foxnews.com/food-drink/conor-mcgregors-proper-irish-whiskey-to-sponsor-his-ufc-fights
 Emily Caron, Watch: LeBron James Walks into Lakers-Clippers Game With Glass of Wine, Sports Illustrated, (Dec. 28, 2018), https://www.si.com/nba/2018/12/29/lebron-james-lakers-clippers-game-glass-wine-video