While most fans are focused on the game, sponsorships are making impressions on at least 412 million children a year, promoting unhealthy foods and beverages alongside athletes in premiere physical condition.
A new study, published in the journal Pediatrics, analyzed sponsorships and advertisements for the 10 most viewed sports leagues to determine the impact those sponsorships have on childhood obesity.
"The paradox there was so striking to me because it sends the message that diet is not important and physical activity is, and I think its a really powerful one that's potentially problematic for kids," Dr. Marie Bragg.
Bragg teaches public health at the NYU School of Medicine and was inspired to take a closer look at the subject while watching an NCAA basketball tournament.
Her study found that the for the 10 most viewed sports leagues, there are 44 food and non-alcoholic beverages. Food and beverage sponsorships account for nearly 20 percent of sponsorship deals and only the insurance category has a bigger share.
The NFL has the most food and non-alcoholic beverage sponsors with 10. Only UFC did not have any food or beverage sponsors.
"I think the general public already associates watching sports games seeing unhealthy ads or seeing food ads in general, and I think there's a big association between watching a game and having wings or chips or soda, so that relationship is really tightly woven together," Bragg said.
Bragg's study points to earlier research showing that the presence of food ads prompts viewers to eat more.
"Another consequence is that by associating them with physical fitness and sports, we may be actually making the foods seem healthier than they actually are," Bragg said. "Even when we know we're being advertised to, we're very much influenced by it."
Eighteen of the biggest companies in the food industry have agreed to the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which at its core is a pledge not to market unhealthy foods to children.
Bragg's research points out that even though sports programs are not targeting children, those same companies products are making impressions on 412 million kids a year.
"Even though they're not targeting kids through cartoons or other mediums, they're still getting their ads in front of the eyeballs of 412 million kids a year through these sorts of sports sponsorships. Even though these are adult targeted programs, these companies are still kind of getting around the spirit of their own pledge to promote thse products to adults and a large group of kids."
"Simply telling these kids 'this is advertising, so don't listen to it,' doesn't work. We know that these advertisers spend billions of dollars a year on this very powerful machine, so we need to do some other things like getting active on social media and Tweeting at these sports organizations and saying 'hey my kids watch these sports programs. Can we put a few more healthy products in the mix there.'"