Fans attending Birmingham City football games in the past have been exposed to posters advertising a prominent e-cigarette brand with the phrase ‘kicks butt’ in promotion of their products. However, after a ruling from the Advertising Standard Agency (ASA), Nicolites must immediately cease the ad campaign in its current form.


Although the ASA did acknowledge the e-cigarette company had the legal right to sponsor a sports club and to take advantage of that partnership for advertising purposes, they said the ‘kicks butt’ ads were too similar to the ‘kick butt’ stop smoking campaign. The ASA maintains those similarities could lead to confusion among consumers who might believe e-cigarettes are approved as a smoking cessation devices. Under law, they are not.


For entities like Birmingham City, the advertising flap raises bigger questions about how far clubs should go with sponsorship deals. It is about more than just electronic cigarettes and the stop smoking message; it is about turning sports organisations into corporate conglomerates where advertising becomes more important than sport.


Welcome to Cigg-e Stadium


Perhaps nothing illustrates the conundrum sports clubs now face better than last year’s renaming of Pennydarren Park in Merthyr. The local football club sold the naming rights to their stadium to the Cigg-e electronic cigarette company as a way to raise funds after liquidation resulted in fans taking over operation of the club several years ago. Had the e-cigarette company not stepped in to the sponsorship deal, Merthyr Town Football Club would have found someone else.


The economic realities of modern sport dictate that clubs look for sponsorship deals anywhere they can find them. That is no longer even a question. Nevertheless, whether or not sponsorship deals with electronic cigarette companies are the wave of the future remains to be seen. For the record, Cigg-e was already involved in sports sponsorship before the stadium deal with Merthyr Town.


Another thing to consider is the fact that the question of sponsorship go well beyond football. It is a question being dealt with all across the sports spectrum, from horseracing to rugby to cricket. Moreover, it is one being dealt with outside of Europe as well.


For example, stock car racing in North America used to be sponsored heavily by tobacco companies. And while that’s no longer the case, e-cigarette companies are dabbling in sponsorship deals with racing teams willing to strike a favourable deal. America’s biggest stock car racing organisation, NASCAR, has welcomed at least one e-cigarette company as a primary sponsor in the Camping World Truck Series for 2014. Other electronic cigarette companies have signed on in previous years as secondary sponsors.


The difficulty in this arena comes by way of the idea that e-cigarette use re-normalises the smoking habit. Those opposed to NASCAR allowing e-cigarette sponsorships say the sport of stock car racing has come a long way from its old tobacco sponsorship days; they do not want to see what they perceive as a return to those old days via electronic cigarette sponsorships.

Navigating the Waters for the Future


Sponsorships in sport have long been an area of contention among those who realise the financial benefits and those who would prefer to keep sport pure. It is unlikely that contention will ever die. However, it behoves sporting clubs and executive to find a way to achieve marketing deals without compromising the sport itself. Such stormy waters will certainly be difficult to navigate.


Perhaps the ASA decision in Birmingham is a starting point for determining where to go with electronic cigarette sponsorships and marketing. However, it does not do a whole lot in terms of guidance for sponsorship in general. Companies like Skycig, Vapourlites, and Vapestick will continue to market as aggressively as they can within the boundaries of the law, so it is up to sports teams, venues, and everyone else involved to make sure they figure it out in a way that meets everyone’s expectations.