76 percent of the sponsored food for sports games is unhealthy.
bag of chips
Credit: © Werner Blessing / Getty Images

On its surface, encouraging children to watch sports might seem like a great way to inspire them to be more active, potentially promoting healthier lifestyles. However, a new study suggests that most of the food and beverage marketing associated with these sports may be having the exact opposite effect, contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic by primarily advertising junk food and sugar-sweetened beverages.

A surprising 76 percent of all official food sponsorships during popular televised sports were deemed unhealthy and over 52 percent of nonalcoholic beverage sponsors during these events were for sugar-sweetened drinks, according to the study led by scientists from the NYU School of Medicine and published online today in the journal Pediatrics. The study also found that the food and beverage industry was second only to the automotive industry when it came to the number of sports sponsorships, accounting for 18.8 percent of these official advertisers.

“The U.S. is in the throes of a child and adolescent obesity epidemic, and these findings suggest that sports organizations and many of their sponsors are contributing, directly and indirectly, to it,” Marie Bragg, PhD, assistant professor of Population Health at NYU School of Medicine and the study's lead investigator, said in a statement. “Sports organizations need to develop more health-conscious marketing strategies that are aligned with recommendations from national medical associations.”

The study reached its conclusions by looking at the 10 sports organizations with the largest number of 2- to 17-year-old viewers. The products of food sponsors were then assigned a score based on the Nutrient Profile Model, a 100-point scale that deems foods with a score above 64 as “healthy.” Overall, these food sponsors preformed extremely poorly by this metric, with an average score of around 38 to 39, the equivalent of a snack like potato chips.

Importantly, the study didn’t take the final step of explicitly determining whether these sponsorships actually had any impact on eating habits; however, if these sorts of sponsorships weren’t increasing sales, clearly businesses wouldn’t be shelling out for them to begin with.