- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 5, 2007

At this week’s LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock golf course in Havre De Grace, Md., the world’s top female golfers again will tee off against a backdrop of bent grass and Golden Arches.

McDonald’s, the world’s largest fast-food restaurant chain, is serving as the tournament’s chief sponsor for the 26th year, continuing its relationship with an event that began as a humble local tournament for charity.

But the LPGA’s second major of the year is merely a medium-sized arrow in a quiver filled with sports events McDonald’s now supports. The company best known for Big Macs, Quarter Pounders and fries has staked a claim as a key sponsor for everything from the Olympic Games and World Cup to high school basketball and Canadian hockey. And while the Oak Brook, Ill., company has earned praise for raising millions of dollars for charity along the way, the sports partnerships have come with their share of criticism from groups who fail to see the relationship between athletics and McDonald’s food.

“They sponsor sports all over the world,” said Herb Lotman, chairman of Keystone Foods, a top McDonald’s distributor and co-founder of the tournament that became the McDonald’s LPGA Championship. “They give back to the community a lot, and their way of giving back is to be involved in sports.”

Over the years, the LPGA Championship has raised $45 million for Ronald McDonald House Charities, which benefits sick children and their families. More than $5 million has been raised through the annual McDonald’s All American high school basketball game.

Globally, McDonald’s official involvement in the Olympics began with the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, but it joined the elite Top Olympic Program in 1998, becoming an exclusive worldwide sponsor in the food services category. McDonald’s is now signed as a TOP sponsor through the 2012 Summer Games in London.

As one of 11 TOP members in games spanning 2005 through 2008, McDonald’s is expected to pay an estimated $76 million in combined support of last year’s 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, and next year’s 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.

“McDonald’s is absolutely a fantastic sponsor because they thoroughly engage and really understand the business of sports marketing,” said Andrea Shaw, vice president of communications for Vancouver 2010, the organizing committee for the 2010 Winter Games in British Columbia. “They are a very engaged company, which isn’t always the way.”

McDonald’s has been known to unroll some of its more memorable campaigns during the Olympics and other major sporting events. At last year’s World Cup, the company invited 1,400 children to Germany, where they were paired with a top soccer player as part of a special “player escort” program. And the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens is credited with expanding awareness of the McDonald’s “i’m lovin’ it” slogan.

“It’s not about building our brand — we are pretty ubiquitous,” said John Lewicki, McDonald’s senior director of alliance marketing. “It’s about activating and delivering an experience.”

But McDonald’s involvement in sports has been hit with criticism from groups who say the restaurant’s food is not healthy enough to be tied to high-level athletic competition. During last year’s World Cup, several noted physicians argued McDonald’s, Coca-Cola (also a sponsor of the LPGA Championship) and Budweiser should be reconsidered as official sponsors. British doctors Jeff Collin and Ross Mackenzie were particularly critical of the English Football Association, which selected McDonald’s as an official sponsor.

“[The English Football Association’s] choice of McDonald’s as its partner … seems highly questionable,” the authors wrote in the Lancet, a British medical journal. “The suitability of this relation is scarcely enhanced by a recent corporate initiative linking McDonald’s with sporting achievement, with World Cup and Olympic medal winners and the slogan ‘it’s what I eat and what I do.’ ”

The article’s authors also were critical of the involvement of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola in plans for the Olympics in London.

“The Games aim to inspire ‘a new generation to greater sporting activity and achievement, helping to foster a healthy and active nation,’ an ambition we find difficult to reconcile with McDonald’s and Coca-Cola as official sponsors,” they wrote.

McDonald’s dismissed such criticism, pointing to its recent expansion of more healthful food options, including salads and fruit. At last year’s Winter Games, the company unveiled new packaging containing the food’s nutritional information. Also last year, the company created “Passport to Play,” a program that encourages elementary schoolers to be more active.

“I do believe a lot of the criticism is unfair,” Lewicki said. “McDonald’s has a lot of great offerings and choices. There’s a lot of misunderstandings. It’s about balance … and it’s not just what you eat, it’s also what you do.”

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