BACKGROUND:

Food and nonalcoholic beverage companies spend millions of dollars on professional sports sponsorships, yet this form of marketing is understudied. These sponsorships are valuable marketing tools but prompt concerns when unhealthy products are associated with popular sports organizations, especially those viewed by youth.

METHODS:

This descriptive study used Nielsen audience data to select 10 sports organizations with the most 2–17 year old viewers of 2015 televised events. Sponsors of these organizations were identified and assigned to product categories. We identified advertisements promoting food and/or nonalcoholic beverage sponsorships on television, YouTube, and sports organization Web sites from 2006 to 2016, and the number of YouTube advertisement views. The nutritional quality of advertised products was assessed.

RESULTS:

Youth watched telecasts associated with these sports organizations over 412 million times. These organizations had 44 food and/or nonalcoholic beverage sponsors (18.8% of sponsors), second to automotive sponsors (n = 46). The National Football League had the most food and/or nonalcoholic beverage sponsors (n = 10), followed by the National Hockey League (n = 7) and Little League (n = 7). We identified 273 advertisements that featured food and/or nonalcoholic beverage products 328 times and product logos 83 times (some advertisements showed multiple products). Seventy-six percent (n = 132) of foods had unhealthy nutrition scores, and 52.4% (n = 111) of nonalcoholic beverages were sugar-sweetened. YouTube sponsorship advertisements totaled 195.6 million views.

CONCLUSIONS:

Sports sponsorships are commonly used to market unhealthy food and nonalcoholic beverages, exposing millions of consumers to these advertisements.

What’s Known on This Subject:

Food and beverage companies spend millions of dollars annually on sports sponsorships to use their logos, brand names, and products in sports venues and advertisements. The public health community has raised concerns about unhealthy food and beverage promotion through sponsorships.

What This Study Adds:

The study provides the first comprehensive analysis of food and beverage sponsorships of US sports organizations. Food and beverage companies were the second largest category of sponsors, and the majority of food and beverages in sponsorship commercials were unhealthy.

Poor diet is a significant driver of childhood obesity and is associated with a number of serious illnesses.1,2 Food marketing is 1 factor that contributes to poor diet among youth. Exposure to food advertisements can influence children’s food preferences and purchase requests and can lead to increased short-term food consumption,3,7 even for foods that are not shown in the advertisement.8 Public health experts and government agencies are calling for policies that limit the marketing of unhealthy foods and encourage the promotion of healthy messages.1,9,12 

Sponsorship is 1 form of marketing, defined as “the provision of assistance, either financial or in-kind, to an activity by a commercial organization for the purpose of achieving commercial objectives.”13 The high financial cost of sports sponsorship contracts reveals that companies find immense value in these marketing opportunities, with global expenditures totaling $57.5 billion in 2015.14 In 2011, PepsiCo agreed to pay $90 million per year during their 10-year sponsorship renewal contact with the National Football League (NFL).15 In exchange for an estimated $20 million per Olympic Games, sponsors like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Visa were granted a variety of marketing privileges, including the use of Olympic rings in advertisements.16 In fact, Coca-Cola has sponsored every Olympic Games since 1928, making it the longest continuous partner.17 

Sponsorships are valuable for several reasons. First, brand awareness increases as a result of sponsorship.18,21 Specifically, Americans who viewed the 2008 Olympic Games on television and the Internet had higher brand awareness for companies that spent the most on sponsorship (ie, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Visa) compared with other sponsors.22 Sponsorship may also lead to brand image transfer, or the transfer of positive associations with the sponsored entity (ie, sports organization) to the sponsor (ie, food and/or beverage brand).23,25 For example, feelings of excitement and accomplishment associated with the Olympics may transfer to excitement and a positive self-image when consuming products of an Olympic sponsor, such as Coca-Cola. Companies have also attributed sales growth to sports sponsorship activities.26,32 

Studies examining the influence of food sponsorship on consumers have revealed high levels of recall and preference for food sponsors. The authors of 1 study showed that 68% of children ages 10 to 14 years could recall an average of 2 sponsors associated with their own youth sports team (including 1 food sponsor); children ages 10 to 11 years were more likely than older children to state that they thought about sponsors when making food or beverage purchases and that they should return the favor of sponsorship by purchasing the sponsor’s products.33 In addition, 4 of the 10 “most-liked” commercials during the 2010 Olympics were McDonald’s and Coca-Cola sponsorship commercials.34 The possibility of brand image transfer between unhealthy food brands and sports organizations is concerning if consumers inaccurately associate unhealthy food products with health and fitness.35 

Although the use of sports sponsorships by food companies has been criticized by public health experts,10,12,33 there are scant data in the United States on its scope and the types of foods promoted. The authors of 1 study found that 9% of sports sponsors in Australia were food companies, and 63% of those sponsors promoted unhealthy products.36 Another Australian study revealed that 70% of parents surveyed supported limiting unhealthy food sponsors in children’s sports.37 The authors of 1 systematic review on food marketing and sports sponsorship noted that just 13 studies exist, with 10 taking place in Australia.38 Digital (ie, Internet-based) marketing is 1 platform used in sponsorship, yet this form of advertising is understudied. Because digital marketing is a newer and growing frontier, it is critical for public health researchers to examine the types of products promoted on these platforms and the scope of this form of advertising. In 2006, YouTube was the fastest growing Web brand, increasing its monthly audience from 4.9 million to 19.6 million in 5 months.39 Recent Nielsen40 data reveal that the YouTube mobile application was ranked as the third most frequently used smartphone application.

Public health advocates cited concerns about the effects of unhealthy sports sponsorships during growing criticism of the partnership between McDonald’s and the Olympics.41,43 In 2017, McDonald’s prematurely ended their 41-year Olympics sponsorship, although the company reported that the decision reflected a need to “focus on other priorities.”44 Despite McDonald’s visible presence as a sponsor that terminated its partnership amid such public criticism, no study authors have quantified the extent of sponsorship as a food marketing tactic among a variety of professional sports organizations and food and beverage companies in the United States, nor have any quantified exposure to these commercials via newer media channels such as YouTube. In the current study, we aimed to (1) determine the prevalence of food and nonalcoholic beverage company sponsorships among professional sports organizations popular among youth ages 2 to 17 years in the United States, (2) assess the nutritional quality of products featured in advertisements promoting these sponsorships, and (3) assess the number of times food and nonalcoholic beverage sponsorship commercials were viewed on YouTube.

We used Nielsen’s45 television ratings for sports programs shown during 2015 to identify the 10 organizations whose televised events were most frequently watched by youth (2–17 years) in the United States. First, all televised sports programs were ranked according to the number of youth viewers. To identify the 10 sports organizations (eg, NFL, National Basketball Association [NBA]) with the most youth viewers, we identified the 500 individual sports programs with the most youth viewers and then identified the total number of youth viewers for all programs from the same sports organization.

For each of the 10 sports organizations identified above, we compiled a list of all sponsors using publicly available information. Sponsorship was defined as an instance when an official sports organization logo or name (eg, NFL) was shown with an official company name, product, and/or logo (eg, McDonald’s). To identify sponsorship instances, we used the following search terms: “official sponsor,” “official partner,” “corporate sponsor,” “sponsor,” and the sports organization name, and we then searched the following outlets: (1) official sports organization and food company Web sites, (2) news media announcements identified with Google searches, (3) commercials on YouTube from 2006 to 2016, (4) advertisements on the Kantar Media AdScope database from 2006 to 2016 (includes advertisements appearing in television, print, radio, and magazines),46 and (5) the International Events Group (IEG), a sponsorship industry organization that “has shaped and defined sponsorship for over 3 decades.”47 Most sports organizations listed sponsors on their official Web site, but sponsor information for 3 organizations was only available through IEG.

A research assistant blind to the purpose of the study sorted all sponsors into the following 11 categories: food and/or nonalcoholic beverages, automotive, consumer goods (eg, makeup, headphones), communications (eg, cell phone companies), finance (eg, credit cards), sports (eg, Nike), retail (eg, Lowe’s Home Improvement), tobacco and/or alcohol, services (eg, Google), airlines, and other. These categories were based on sponsorship categories created by IEG.47 The “other” category was created to capture military sponsors (eg, the US Air Force), which did not fit in any other category.

After developing a list of sponsors, 2 researchers reviewed each food and/or nonalcoholic beverage sponsorship advertisement identified above, removed duplicates, and coded the food and/or beverage brand or product appearing in the advertisement as follows: (1) name of the beverage product (eg, Coke Zero), (2) name of the food product (eg, M&Ms Regular), or (3) name of food or beverage logo if food products were not shown or if the type of food shown was unclear (eg, type of wings present in Buffalo Wild Wings advertisement).

Researchers then gathered nutrition information for all products shown in sponsorship advertisements by searching official food and nonalcoholic beverage companies’ Web sites between January and March of 2016. The nutrition information for each food product was evaluated by using the Nutrient Profile Model, a nutrition profiling system used to identify nutritious products that can be advertised to children in the United Kingdom and Australia.48,50 The model uses the numerical nutrition information (eg, number of calories, grams of fiber, etc) from the Nutrition Facts Panel to generate an objective numerical nutrition score.48,49,51 A score of 64 or higher identifies food products as “nutritious.” A nutrition score was generated for each endorsed food product, and an average Nutrient Profile Index (NPI) score for all food products endorsed by each sports organization was determined (Table 1). For advertisements that only showed a logo, members of the study team randomly selected 5 products from the company Web sites and averaged the NPI scores of the selected products to generate an average NPI brand score. Oreo and Ritz snacks advertisements were included in the nutritional analyses because they appeared in advertisements on the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) cars, although they were not listed as official sponsors of NASCAR in 2015. Advertisements featuring generic products unassociated with the advertised brand (eg, unlabeled juice in a Quaker Oatmeal advertisement) were left uncategorized because they were not part of the brand being advertised. Overall, NPI scores were determined by using nutritional information of food products from 34 brands. When brands featured multiple products in their advertisements, NPI scores were averaged.

TABLE 1

Viewership Ranked by Televised Sports Events in 2015 and YouTube Views

Sports OrganizationAverage No. Television Impressions for Viewers Ages 2–17 yaYouTube Views for Sports Organization’s Sponsorship Advertisements through 2016bNo. YouTube and AdScope Advertisements Associated With Sponsor (Date of Earliest Post for Advertisements)
NFL 244 260 000 93 208 599 153 (2006) 
NCAA 64 919 000 398 104 15 (2009) 
NBA 36 711 000 80 009 245 22 (2007) 
FIFA 33 655 000 4 177 442 11 (2010) 
MLB 14 721 000 4 651 487 33 (2007) 
NASCAR 7 586 000 6 922 475 24 (2008) 
NHL 5 931 000 2 006 194 14 (2010) 
PGAc 2 927 000 — 11 (2010) 
Little League 829 000 4 222 473 13 (2009) 
UFCc 545 000 — — 
Total 412 084 000 195 596 019 272 
Sports OrganizationAverage No. Television Impressions for Viewers Ages 2–17 yaYouTube Views for Sports Organization’s Sponsorship Advertisements through 2016bNo. YouTube and AdScope Advertisements Associated With Sponsor (Date of Earliest Post for Advertisements)
NFL 244 260 000 93 208 599 153 (2006) 
NCAA 64 919 000 398 104 15 (2009) 
NBA 36 711 000 80 009 245 22 (2007) 
FIFA 33 655 000 4 177 442 11 (2010) 
MLB 14 721 000 4 651 487 33 (2007) 
NASCAR 7 586 000 6 922 475 24 (2008) 
NHL 5 931 000 2 006 194 14 (2010) 
PGAc 2 927 000 — 11 (2010) 
Little League 829 000 4 222 473 13 (2009) 
UFCc 545 000 — — 
Total 412 084 000 195 596 019 272 

FIFA, Fédération Internationale de Football Association; MLB, Major League Baseball; NCAA, National Collegiate Athletic Association; —, not applicable.

a

This No. represents the average No. of viewers for any given program. For example, on average, 244 260 000 children watched any given televised NFL program during 2009.

b

YouTube does not provide public data on repeat viewers or the demographic characteristics of viewers.

c

No commercials associated with this organization were found on YouTube.

This nutrition profiling tool codes many sugary beverages similarly because sugar is the only ingredient. To further differentiate the sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), we sorted nonalcoholic drinks into sugary drink outlined in the Rudd Center’s Sugary Drink Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score Report52 (Table 2). We also added a category for plain coffee beverages: “no added sugars, no calorie coffee drink.”

TABLE 2

Sports Organization 2015 Sponsorship Profiles

Sports OrganizationOfficial Sponsor of the Sports Organization for 2015Actual Brands Featured in Advertisements Between 2006 and 2016No. Food and Beverage SponsorsPercentage of Sponsors That Are Food and/or Beverage CompaniesMean NPI Score for Food Productsa
NFL Campbell Soup Company Campbell’s Soup 10 27.0 44.0 
Dairy Management Inc Got Milk?b 
PepsiCo Pepsi 
Frito-Lay Diet Pepsi 
Gatorade Pepsi Max 
Quaker Pepsi Next 
Mars Snackfood Lay’s 
Papa John’s Doritos 
The Dannon Company Sunchips 
McDonald’s Fritos 
Rold Gold 
Cracker Jack 
Ruffles 
Gatorade 
M&M’s Crispy 
M&M’s Peanut 
Skittles 
Snickers 
Papa John’s 
Danimals 
Oikos Yogurt 
McDonald’s 
Quaker 
NHL Kraft Heinz Company Heinz Ketchup 20.6 39.0 
PepsiCo Lay’s 
McDonald’s Gatorade 
Kellogg Company McDonald’s 
The Hershey Company Tim Horton’s 
Tim Horton’s Frosted Flakes 
Mondeleza Hershey’s Milk 
Chocolate 
Maxwell House 
Little League PepsiCo Gatorade 35.3 44.9 
Kraft Heinz Company Heinz Ketchup 
Kellogg Company Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes 
Lance Snack Foods Inc ToastChee Crackers 
Synder’s-Lance Subway 
Subway The Original Bomb Pop 
MLB Pepsi Aquafina 18.2 42.6 
Frito-Lay Gatorade 
Aquafina Cracker Jack 
Gatorade  
NCAA The Coca-Cola Company Coca-Cola 23.5 37.6 
Buffalo Wild Wingsa Coke Zero 
Reese’s Buffalo Wild Wingsa 
Nabisco Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups 
Ritz 
Oreo 
Triscuit 
Wheat Thins 
Nutter Buttera 
PGA Pepsi Aquafina 12.1 18 
Gatorade Brisk 
Aquafina Gatorade 
Lipton Iced Tea Lipton 
Brisk 
NASCAR The Coca-Cola Company Coca-Cola 10.3 31 
M&M Candy (Mars Snackfood) Coke Zero 
Nabisco/Kraft Oreo 
Unilever (Hellman’s Mayonnaise) Ritz 
M&M’s Crispy 
M&M’s Peanut Butter 
NBA PepsiCo Pepsi 13.6 18 
The Coca-Cola Company Pepsi Max 
Taco Bell Mountain Dew 
Nabisco/Kraft Mountain Dew Kickstart 
Gatorade 
Spritec 
Taco Bell 
Handi Snacks 
FIFA The Coca-Cola Company Coca-Cola 20.0 — 
UFC — — — — 
Total — — 44 18.4 34.39 
Sports OrganizationOfficial Sponsor of the Sports Organization for 2015Actual Brands Featured in Advertisements Between 2006 and 2016No. Food and Beverage SponsorsPercentage of Sponsors That Are Food and/or Beverage CompaniesMean NPI Score for Food Productsa
NFL Campbell Soup Company Campbell’s Soup 10 27.0 44.0 
Dairy Management Inc Got Milk?b 
PepsiCo Pepsi 
Frito-Lay Diet Pepsi 
Gatorade Pepsi Max 
Quaker Pepsi Next 
Mars Snackfood Lay’s 
Papa John’s Doritos 
The Dannon Company Sunchips 
McDonald’s Fritos 
Rold Gold 
Cracker Jack 
Ruffles 
Gatorade 
M&M’s Crispy 
M&M’s Peanut 
Skittles 
Snickers 
Papa John’s 
Danimals 
Oikos Yogurt 
McDonald’s 
Quaker 
NHL Kraft Heinz Company Heinz Ketchup 20.6 39.0 
PepsiCo Lay’s 
McDonald’s Gatorade 
Kellogg Company McDonald’s 
The Hershey Company Tim Horton’s 
Tim Horton’s Frosted Flakes 
Mondeleza Hershey’s Milk 
Chocolate 
Maxwell House 
Little League PepsiCo Gatorade 35.3 44.9 
Kraft Heinz Company Heinz Ketchup 
Kellogg Company Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes 
Lance Snack Foods Inc ToastChee Crackers 
Synder’s-Lance Subway 
Subway The Original Bomb Pop 
MLB Pepsi Aquafina 18.2 42.6 
Frito-Lay Gatorade 
Aquafina Cracker Jack 
Gatorade  
NCAA The Coca-Cola Company Coca-Cola 23.5 37.6 
Buffalo Wild Wingsa Coke Zero 
Reese’s Buffalo Wild Wingsa 
Nabisco Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups 
Ritz 
Oreo 
Triscuit 
Wheat Thins 
Nutter Buttera 
PGA Pepsi Aquafina 12.1 18 
Gatorade Brisk 
Aquafina Gatorade 
Lipton Iced Tea Lipton 
Brisk 
NASCAR The Coca-Cola Company Coca-Cola 10.3 31 
M&M Candy (Mars Snackfood) Coke Zero 
Nabisco/Kraft Oreo 
Unilever (Hellman’s Mayonnaise) Ritz 
M&M’s Crispy 
M&M’s Peanut Butter 
NBA PepsiCo Pepsi 13.6 18 
The Coca-Cola Company Pepsi Max 
Taco Bell Mountain Dew 
Nabisco/Kraft Mountain Dew Kickstart 
Gatorade 
Spritec 
Taco Bell 
Handi Snacks 
FIFA The Coca-Cola Company Coca-Cola 20.0 — 
UFC — — — — 
Total — — 44 18.4 34.39 

FIFA, Fédération Internationale de Football Association; MLB, Major League Baseball; NCAA, National Collegiate Athletic Association; —, not applicable.

a

Lower scores (<64) represent less healthy foods. Scores are based on products shown in sponsorship commercials.

b

Complete nutrition information was unavailable for this company, so it was excluded from analyses.

c

PepsiCo replaced Coca-Cola in 2015 as an NBA sponsor. Sprite is associated with Coca-Cola, which is not a sponsor of the NBA. However, Sprite sponsors the NBA Slam Dunk Contest.

Finally, we quantified the total number of food and/or nonalcoholic beverage sponsorship advertisements that were identified during the search process described above (ie, 2 research assistants independently searched YouTube for food and nonalcoholic beverage advertisements using the following search terms: official sponsor, official partner, corporate sponsor, sponsor, and the sports organization name). The researchers recorded the total number of food and/or nonalcoholic beverage sponsorship commercials that were uploaded to YouTube from 2006 to 2016 and the number of views associated with each commercial. Capturing a 10-year period of endorsements allowed us to create a more comprehensive profile of sponsorship. The data on viewership for YouTube videos represent the total number of views as of August 2016.

Nielsen audience viewership data revealed that more than 412 million youth ages 2 to 17 years viewed sports programs associated with these 10 sports organizations during 2015 (Table 1).45 Overall, 234 sponsors were associated with the 10 sports organizations linked to the 500 most-watched sports telecasts from which these 10 sports organizations were identified. Food and/or nonalcoholic beverage was the second most common sponsor category (n = 44, 18.8%), exceeded only by automotive brands (n = 46, 19.7%). These 44 food and/or nonalcoholic beverage brand sponsors belonged to 18 parent companies. In some cases, multiple brands within the same company were listed as official sponsors. For example, the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) official Web site lists 4 PepsiCo brands: Aquafina, Gatorade, Pepsi, and Lipton. The NFL had the highest number of food and/or nonalcoholic beverage sponsors, followed by the National Hockey League (NHL) and Little League Baseball (Table 2).

Two hundred seventy-three sponsorship advertisements were identified from searching AdScope, YouTube, and official company and sports organization Web sites. Advertisements included television commercials and still advertisements (eg, images featured on sports organization Web sites). Within the 273 unique advertisements in the sample, there were 83 instances within advertisements in which only a logo was shown (ie, no actual food or nonalcoholic beverage products were shown, so the instance was coded as the hallmark product) and 196 instances in which 1 or more food or nonalcoholic beverage products were shown. Because more than 1 food or nonalcoholic beverage product was shown in 58 advertisements, the total number of nonalcoholic beverage products shown in the sample of advertisements was 155 and the total number of food products shown was 173. Nutter Butter, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Cracker Barrel food and nonalcoholic beverage products were excluded from nutrition analyses because complete nutrition information was unavailable.

There were 212 instances in which nonalcoholic beverage products were promoted in sponsorship advertisements, including 57 (26.9%) instances in which only the nonalcoholic beverage logo was shown, without showing a specific product (Table 3). Out of the 155 instances in which a nonalcoholic beverage product was shown, 111 (52.4%) advertised SSBs, and 51 (20.8%) advertised non-SSBs (eg, unsweetened teas, diet sodas, water, etc). Full-calorie, regular soft drinks were the largest category of nonalcoholic beverages shown (N = 68, 43.9%), followed by diet soft drinks (N = 31, 20.0%) and sports drinks (N = 19, 12.3%). Plain water was featured 6 times (3.9%), no-calorie coffee was featured 3 times (1.9%), and milk was featured 3 times (1.9%). PepsiCo products were featured most frequently (N = 111, 69.0%), whereas its products’ logos were featured 48 times.

TABLE 3

Nutritional Quality of Beverages Featured in Sports Sponsorship Commercials

Drink CategoryCompanyBrandSports Organizations That Featured This BeverageNo. Instances This Beverage Was Shown Within the 273 Advertisements
Regular soda, full calories PepsiCo Pepsi NFL, MLB, PGA 30 
Regular soda, full calories Coca-Cola Coca-Cola FIFA, NASCAR, NCAA, NFL 26 
Sports drink, full calories PepsiCo Gatorade PGA, MLB, Little League, NHL, NFL 20 
Other, diet drink (soda) PepsiCo Pepsi Max NFL, NBA, MLB 12 
Other, diet drink Coca-Cola Coke Zero NCAA, NASCAR 10 
Other, diet drink (soda) PepsiCo Diet Pepsi NFL, MLB 
Regular soda, full calories PepsiCo Mountain Dew NFL, NBA 
Plain water PepsiCo Aquafina PGA, MLB, NFL 
Fruit drink, full calories PepsiCo Mountain Dew Kickstart NBA 
Sports drink, full calories PepsiCo Gatorade Recover Protein Shake NFL, NBA, MLB 
Sports drink, full calories PepsiCo Gatorade Whey Protein Powder NFL, NBA, MLB 
Regular soda, reduced calories PepsiCo Pepsi Next NFL 
Regular soda, full calories Dr Pepper Snapple Group Dr Pepper NFL 
Sports drink, no calories PepsiCo Propel PGA 
Regular soda, full calories PepsiCo Sierra Mist NFL 
Coffee drink, no calories Kraft Heinz Company Maxwell House NHL 
Total, n — 16 — 138 
Drink CategoryCompanyBrandSports Organizations That Featured This BeverageNo. Instances This Beverage Was Shown Within the 273 Advertisements
Regular soda, full calories PepsiCo Pepsi NFL, MLB, PGA 30 
Regular soda, full calories Coca-Cola Coca-Cola FIFA, NASCAR, NCAA, NFL 26 
Sports drink, full calories PepsiCo Gatorade PGA, MLB, Little League, NHL, NFL 20 
Other, diet drink (soda) PepsiCo Pepsi Max NFL, NBA, MLB 12 
Other, diet drink Coca-Cola Coke Zero NCAA, NASCAR 10 
Other, diet drink (soda) PepsiCo Diet Pepsi NFL, MLB 
Regular soda, full calories PepsiCo Mountain Dew NFL, NBA 
Plain water PepsiCo Aquafina PGA, MLB, NFL 
Fruit drink, full calories PepsiCo Mountain Dew Kickstart NBA 
Sports drink, full calories PepsiCo Gatorade Recover Protein Shake NFL, NBA, MLB 
Sports drink, full calories PepsiCo Gatorade Whey Protein Powder NFL, NBA, MLB 
Regular soda, reduced calories PepsiCo Pepsi Next NFL 
Regular soda, full calories Dr Pepper Snapple Group Dr Pepper NFL 
Sports drink, no calories PepsiCo Propel PGA 
Regular soda, full calories PepsiCo Sierra Mist NFL 
Coffee drink, no calories Kraft Heinz Company Maxwell House NHL 
Total, n — 16 — 138 

FIFA, Fédération Internationale de Football Association; MLB, Major League Baseball; NCAA, National Collegiate Athletic Association; —, not applicable.

Out of the 173 instances in which food products or brand logos were shown, 132 (76.3%) promoted foods with NPI scores lower than 64, indicating that they were energy-dense, nutrient-poor products (Table 4). The PGA had the worst overall NPI average (NPI = 18.0) because the only product they featured in a food sponsor advertisement was a high-sugar Gatorade Protein Bar.

TABLE 4

Twenty-Five Brands or Products With the Worst NPI Scores

Brand or ProductSports OrganizationNPI Score for Food Productsa
Gatorade Protein Bars NBA, PGA 18.0 
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups NCAA 22.0 
Snickers NFL 22.0 
Peanut M&Ms NFL 26.0 
Oreos NASCAR 28.0 
Ritz Crackers NHL 30.0 
Skittles NFL 32.0 
Handi Snacksb NHL, NBA 33.0 
Kraft Dinner NHL 35.1 
Philadelphia Cream Cheese NHL 36.0 
Hershey’s NHL 36.8 
Heinz Ketchup Little League 38.0 
Lance Toast Peanut Butter Crackers Little League 38.0 
Cracker Jack MLB 38.0 
Fritos NFL, MLB 38.8 
Lay’s NFL, MLB 39.6 
Frosted Flakes cereal NHL, Little League 40.0 
Ruffles NFL, MLB 40.4 
Papa John’s Pizza NFL 43.1 
Doritos NFL 45.2 
Rold Gold pretzels NFL, MLB 47.3 
McDonald’s NFL, NHL 48.0 
Sun Chips NFL, MLB 49.2 
Tostitos Chips NFL 50.8 
The Original Bomb Pop Little League 62.0 
Brand or ProductSports OrganizationNPI Score for Food Productsa
Gatorade Protein Bars NBA, PGA 18.0 
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups NCAA 22.0 
Snickers NFL 22.0 
Peanut M&Ms NFL 26.0 
Oreos NASCAR 28.0 
Ritz Crackers NHL 30.0 
Skittles NFL 32.0 
Handi Snacksb NHL, NBA 33.0 
Kraft Dinner NHL 35.1 
Philadelphia Cream Cheese NHL 36.0 
Hershey’s NHL 36.8 
Heinz Ketchup Little League 38.0 
Lance Toast Peanut Butter Crackers Little League 38.0 
Cracker Jack MLB 38.0 
Fritos NFL, MLB 38.8 
Lay’s NFL, MLB 39.6 
Frosted Flakes cereal NHL, Little League 40.0 
Ruffles NFL, MLB 40.4 
Papa John’s Pizza NFL 43.1 
Doritos NFL 45.2 
Rold Gold pretzels NFL, MLB 47.3 
McDonald’s NFL, NHL 48.0 
Sun Chips NFL, MLB 49.2 
Tostitos Chips NFL 50.8 
The Original Bomb Pop Little League 62.0 

MLB, Major League Baseball; NCAA, National Collegiate Athletic Association.

a

Lower scores (<64) represent less healthy foods. Scores are based on products shown in sponsorship commercials.

b

Handi Snacks is a snack food product line sold by Mondelez International, which has a sports sponsorship affiliation with the NHL.

A total of 195 596 019 YouTube views were associated with food and nonalcoholic beverage sports sponsorship advertisements in the sample of commercials posted between 2006 and 2016 (Table 1). Pepsi (including Pepsi Regular, Pepsi Max, etc) sponsorship advertisements had the most views on YouTube (N = 132 351 532), followed by Gatorade (N = 24 728 056).

This study reveals the high prevalence of partnerships between sports organizations and food and/or nonalcoholic beverage company sponsors. The NFL had the most food and/or nonalcoholic beverage sponsors, and the organization’s telecast also had the most youth in the audience (totaling 244 million youth viewers in 2015). National Little League had the third highest number of food and/or nonalcoholic beverage sponsors, suggesting that sponsorships of children’s sports organizations are highly valued by food and beverage companies. Only 1 organization, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), did not have any food and/or nonalcoholic beverage sponsors.

The vast majority of food and nonalcoholic beverage products advertised in association with the other 9 sports organizations did not qualify as nutritious. Full-calorie, regular sodas were the most frequently appearing nonalcoholic beverages in advertisements in the sample, followed by diet soda and sports drinks. In contrast, plain water was only featured 6 times, and low-fat milk appeared once within the 273 advertisements in our sample. These findings are consistent with those within previous research revealing that the majority of food products promoted through sports sponsorships are unhealthy.53,58 The promotion of unhealthy foods and beverages during sports is especially concerning because study authors have shown that up to 76% of children surveyed can recall at least 1 food company that sponsors a sports organization.59,60 In addition, the authors of 1 study conducted in Australia estimated that 80% of children play organized sports, and up to 75% of their youth sports clubs maintain food sponsorships.61 

Television program viewer data reveal that millions of youth tune into sports programs each year. The general viewership data available for the 228 YouTube food and/or nonalcoholic beverage sponsorship commercials in our sample reveal how broadly these commercials are viewed (195 596 019 views). Newer media outlets such as YouTube provide companies with new ways of reaching consumers and potentially broadening consumers’ exposure to advertisements, in part because YouTube is easily available. Sports organizations in this sample clearly provide tremendous opportunities for food sponsors interested in marketing to youth, and the paradox of using sports to promote unhealthy products is alarming, especially given the large number of youth who watch televised sports. In addition, the authors of 1 study showed that food sponsor logos were visible during 44% to 74% of 3 televised cricket games,62 suggesting a need for more research on how exposure to advertisements during televised games affects dietary behaviors.

Because of these results, concerns about partnerships between sports organizations and food and nonalcoholic beverage companies are reinforced. Four of the 10 sports organizations evaluated in our study did not have policies on child-directed marketing.63 Furthermore, 10 of 18 companies involved in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) industry self-regulatory program are sponsors of at least 1 sports organization in this sample.64 The initiative is a voluntary industry-led pledge in which food and beverage companies publicly commit to refraining from advertising unhealthy products to children <12 years of age. Despite the fact that sports programming does not explicitly target children younger than 12 years of age, these children are a large segment of the audience viewing such programs. If these sponsorship commercials are showing during televised sports programs, these data reveal that sports sponsorships enable food and nonalcoholic beverage companies that made CFBAI pledges to expose children to unhealthy products while ostensibly complying with their pledge.

This study has several limitations. First, we did not quantify sponsorship appearances within games on the sidelines or sponsor brand mentions made by announcers during televised games. Furthermore, YouTube does not distinguish between unique versus repeated views. Some sponsorship advertisements may have accrued more views than others simply because of sponsorship duration. Future study authors could examine the nutritional quality of products shown during broadcasts of sports events and assess the influence of exposure on consumers’ food and beverage preferences. However, the strengths of the study include the large number of sports organizations and advertisements evaluated, the inclusion of 2 viewership data sources (eg, YouTube, Nielsen), and the objective nutrition scoring procedure. Future researchers should examine the influence of sports sponsorships’ social media advertisements on adolescent perceptions and food intake.

With the results of this study, we generate several implications. First, sports organizations could develop more health-conscious policies that prohibit partnerships with companies primarily promoting unhealthy products or limit food marketing to the company’s healthiest products. Voluntary food marketing pledges like CFBAI should be expanded to include adolescents, which is consistent with recommendations from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Healthy Eating Research program65 and the American Academy of Pediatrics, which encourages pediatricians to support efforts to reduce food marketing while also educating patients on the importance of limiting screen time.66 Finally, grassroots efforts through public involvement and media attention could help shift current sponsorship practices. McDonald’s decision to end their Olympic sponsorship after mounting criticism from public health advocates suggests that other sports organizations could capitalize on the public pressure to improve the healthfulness of sponsors. In summary, our results reveal that numerous food and beverage companies promote unhealthy products through sponsorship of a variety of professional sports, millions of youth view sports programs associated with unhealthy sponsors, and food and beverage sponsorship advertisements reach millions of viewers on YouTube. These findings support the need to expand criteria of voluntary food marketing pledges.

     
  • CFBAI

    Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative

  •  
  • IEG

    International Events Group

  •  
  • NASCAR

    National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing

  •  
  • NBA

    National Basketball Association

  •  
  • NFL

    National Football League

  •  
  • NHL

    National Hockey League

  •  
  • NPI

    Nutrient Profile Index

  •  
  • PGA

    Professional Golfers’ Association

  •  
  • SSB

    sugar-sweetened beverage

  •  
  • UFC

    Ultimate Fighting Championship

Dr Bragg originated the study idea and design, helped with data acquisition and analyses, led the writing of the manuscript, had full access to all of the data in the study, and takes responsibility for the integrity of the data and accuracy of the analysis; Ms Miller helped with the data acquisition and analysis and helped draft the manuscript; Drs Roberto, Harris, and Brownell helped interpret the results and provided critical feedback on drafts of the manuscript; Ms Sam and Mr Sarda helped with the data acquisition and analysis and provided feedback on the manuscript; and all authors approved the final manuscript as submitted and agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work.

FUNDING: Supported in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (Dr Harris). The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This project was also supported by the Rudd Foundation and Dr Bragg's National Institutes of Health (NIH) Early Independence Award (DP5OD021373-01) from the NIH Office of the Director, P60MD000538. Dr Roberto is supported by the National Institute on Aging of the NIH under award P30AG034546. The content of this article is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of NIH. Funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

We thank Willie Frazier from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity for compiling the Nielsen data. We also thank the following research assistants and staff from the New York University SeedProgram for their contributions in collecting data: Yrvane Pageot, Ryan Hand, Alicia Korda, Margaret Eby, Christina Marini, Alex Bragg, Maimuna Marenah, Greg Vann, Anna Davies, Alex Harvey, Tenay Greene, Sally Slingerland, Susan Stork, and Udit Modi.

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Competing Interests

POTENTIAL CONFLICT OF INTEREST: The authors have indicated they have no potential conflicts of interest to disclose.

FINANCIAL DISCLOSURE: The authors have indicated they have no financial relationships relevant to this article to disclose.