ISTANBUL - Efes Pilsen has built a reputation of being a tough basketball team to beat, but this time its shot at being more popular could be blocked by a new law. Authorities are working on regulation to ban alcoholic drinks as sponsors of sports clubs, putting the team’s future in doubt

Efes Pilsen has proudly been sponsoring Turkish basketball for more than three decades. Now, however, a legal intervention could bring an end to the beer’s glory days in the sport.

A draft regulation by the Tobacco Products and Alcoholic Beverages Market Regulatory Authority, or TAPDK, may limit brewery brands’ from sponsoring sports clubs, putting the future of Efes Pilsen in doubt.

The club’s foundation in 1976, after Efes Brewery Group Chief Executive Officer Tuncay Özilhan bought Kadıköyspor, was initially a solution to the heavy ban on advertising alcohol at the time. It was a unique way to get airtime for a beer brand, but the group’s investment in basketball did a lot more than that. In 32 years, Efes played a main part in the game’s ascent to the second most popular sport in Turkey, leading the country in the total number of league titles won, 12, and becoming the first Turkish team to win a European trophy, in the Koraç Cup victory in 1996.

Threat of broad interpretation
Now, a new regulation of the TAPDK may be cause an unlikely end to one of the country’s most fascinating success stories. Current regulations prohibit alcohol advertisement on television, but commercials in movie theaters and in the press are not prohibited. The first draft of the new ruling expands the ban, focusing particularly on advertising that "attracts young people." When the regulation is finalized, the definition of "attracting young people" may be broadened, which could result in a brewery brand sponsoring a sports club being totally banned.

According to TAPDK President Kerem Çalışkan, there is no need to panic, as currently there is only a "draft of a draft."

"There are ongoing discussions within the committee," said Çalışkan. "When the committee finishes the regulation, it will be sent to the Ministry of Health, the Competition Authority, the Advertising Board, and the Ministry of Industry. The final version will be sent to the prime minister who will make the ultimate decision."

Çalışkan did not deny there is a possibility the regulation may harm the interests of Efes Pilsen.

"The current draft will not necessarily force Efes Pilsen to remove its name from the club, but the TAPDK may do this," he added. "If four of the committee’s seven members decide Efes Pilsen’s activity as a sports club is against the law, that could happen."

The club is watching the case closely. "The current situation makes us think there is a risk of the club being closed," said Dilek Başarır, marketing director of the Efes Brewery Group’s regional headquarters in Turkey. "There are vague parts in the first draft, especially the description of young people."

"There is a new description of ’young,’ which is classified as between the ages of 15 and 24. It goes on to ban ’advertising during movies that attract young people,’ which seems like an overall ban,"she said. "The TAPDK insists this is not their intention. I believe the committee should be more precise, to avoid any misunderstanding."

Personally, Çalışkan does not appear to be a champion of closing the most successful basketball team in the country. But he admits he will abide by the committee’s regulation in any case.

"Efes Pilsen has been almost a synonym for basketball from childhood and I would not want [this regulation] to be against Efes Pilsen," explains Çalışkan. "But if the committee decides against Efes, I have to defend my institution."

Questions have been raised as to whether Efes Pilsen’s most powerful opponent on the basketball court, the Ülker group, is lobbying for the regulation, but Başarır played down the conspiracy theory. Right now, Ülker, a food manufacturing company close to the government, sponsors three basketball teams and is the biggest rival of Efes.

"We do not believe such lobbying is going on, because everybody knows such a regulation would hurt the country. Many social awareness projects, cultural and artistic activities will be halted, as well as sport," Başarır said.

What if Efes Pilsen tries another trick to keep itself alive, such as turning the team name into Efes Pilsen Soda Pop? Çalışkan said that door will also be closed. "If the regulation leads to prohibition," explains Çalışkan, "there will surely also be regulations to prevent such a possibility."