2002 marked a historic moment. Fulham announced the first betting shirt sponsor in the English Premier League (EPL). Since then, the gambling industry have become one of the most prominent partners in the game. With the industry facing regulatory and reputational challenges, will it mark the end of a crucial relationship for football clubs?
Football clubs’ partnerships with the gambling industry are one of the most mutually beneficial relationships in sporting history. EPL teams recorded combined earnings of nearly £70 million from gambling shirt sponsors alone. Without the gambling industry, many teams would find replacing that income challenging
However, these relationships have been facing increased scrutiny. They were a primary focus of the recent House of Lords Report , calling for a blanket ban on all forms of sponsorship and advertising. Many have expressed concerns about the potential impact this proposal could have, claiming it could be financially damaging many teams and stop clubs being able to reach their global fan bases
These on-going partnerships provide essential income for clubs. Some industry operators have used the sponsorships as an opportunity to promote the ever-important message of responsible gaming.
More definitely still needs to be done. A recent Football Supporters Association (FSA) survey found that only 10% of fans thought their club did enough to promote responsible gaming. If teams and industry operators can work together to better promote responsible behaviours, then they can continue to work together and make a difference in so many ways
Money Makes the World Go Round
Following the move that saw Neymar join PSG for £200 million, the sport reached a new level financially. It created a snowball effect of clubs having to spend massive sums of money to buy players. Without it, they were unable to compete with rivals.
Clubs now, more than ever, rely on money received from sponsorships. It helps fund transfers, stadium expansions, improving training facilities, and wages for players and staff. With so many clubs now having sponsorship deals with the gambling industry, they have become an invaluable partner for teams.
Betting sponsors don’t account for any of the 6 most lucrative shirt sponsorship deals in the EPL. Despite this, all these teams still have betting partners as providers of income.
Shirt sponsors from gambling companies are seen on 10/14 of the clubs outside of the ‘big 6’. They provide irreplaceable income and help grow teams. When Everton joined SportPesa in 2017 it grew their shirt sponsorship rights 51%.
Despite these valued partnerships, a potential ban has been discussed for some time now. In late 2019 the government announced it would review the 2005 gambling act and begun rumours of a blanket ban. The Premier Leagues Chief Executive Richard Masters was quick to speak out:
A similar ban was implemented in Italy in late 2019. It received much outcry due to many clubs and the league itself relying on the income from betting sponsors.
Less than a year later, Serie A authorities have issued a public plea to the government to restore the sponsorships for a minimum 12-month period, especially given the recent pandemic.
UK and Italy have similar GGR and number of clubs with
sponsors, and banning these deals had disastrous consequences for them (Source: SportsBusiness)
In the EFL 17 out of the 20 teams have betting partners, many having multiple. They provide a crucial injection of capital into clubs, one which they could not operate as successfully without.
The English second, third, and fourth division leagues are all sponsored by a betting company. Without this financial infrastructure, these leagues would struggle to operate. Putting 72 different clubs in a difficult position financially.
Footballs Gone Global
Due to the globalisation of sport, clubs have international fan bases they want to expand. Technology’s rise means fans want to and can be more involved with their clubs than ever before. Many teams rely on betting partners to do just that.
Leicester’s sponsors ‘King Power’ had always seen Asia as a key demographic. They began setting up ‘football clinics’ across Thailand. Sending over coaches, and being led by the country’s best-known goal scorer, Kiatisak ‘Zico’ Senamuang. This helped bolster their image, however, they were keen to achieve more.
This led to the partnership with popular Asian operator M88. The claimed they would ‘bring our loyal customers closer to the club’, and they did just that. The club’s name skyrocketed in popularity across the continent, beginning to compete with Liverpool and Manchester United.
There is a plethora of teams who have made similar deals to grow their brand and fan base. Swansea used to be sponsored by Asian betting operator Letou. Together they created videos of first team players learning how to cook dumplings. These were then shared on popular Asian social media platforms ‘Weibo’ and ‘WeChat’.
Many of the biggest clubs in England all release content on social media tailored for an Asian audience. Arsenal created consistent content on their Asian tour including ‘Ozil, Ox and Lacazette do Kung Fu [in Singapore]’, and ‘Arsenal try Chinese drumming’.
Football clubs have reached a challenging crossroads. With the increasing globalisation of the sport they must now operate similarly to traditional business by generating growth, or risk falling behind their rivals
The game is no longer just played on the pitch, it doesn’t just start when the referee blows the whistle. For many clubs, with fan bases in every time-zone possible, the game never stops.
Clubs have to be willing to constantly produce content to appease their audience. Many of these forms of content wouldn’t be possible without betting companies providing funding and resources.
Following their rise as sponsors, betting companies have begun doing more than provide income and content. They have starting using their partnerships with clubs to promote the responsible gaming message.
Responsbility to Promote Responsibility
The gambling industry is beginning to better promote the right message and using football club sponsorships to do so.
The Kindred Group, who own 32Bet and UniBet began making notable strides. They announced any match played between 2 teams they sponsored would have responsible gaming messaging throughout. This included logos, slogans on shirts, and changing the advertising boards.
Some of the slogans on shirts included;
· ‘Keep Gambling Fun’
· ‘Play Responsible’
· ‘Never Chase Loses’
· ‘Set Deposit Limits’
Both parties have a responsibility to promote responsible gaming. The huge audiences watching football provides a great opportunity to do just this.
Other betting operators have begun pushing similar messages such as Paddy Power’s notorious ‘Save our Shirts’ campaign. They initially put massive text on partners Huddersfield Towns shirts.
Then later revealing it all to be a message promoting the idea that ‘kits should be sacred’. The move was aimed at other sponsors, especially other industry operators. Demonstrating there is clearly a place for gambling sponsors in football, however it must come with mediation.
Octagon and VCCP Blue who worked on the campaign, reported it received 528 million social media impressions after just 3 months
Football teams would undeniably face difficulties without gambling sponsors. If clubs want to continue having profitable partnerships with the industry, they need to continue to promote how to enjoy betting responsibly. These efforts need to be sustained by everyone, on a wider scale.
Promoting responsible gaming provides mutual benefits for all. It builds trust between the industry and customers. This will lead to more acceptance from fans towards sponsorships between football clubs and operators.
Throughout history much of the responsibility for building trust has been left to the industry. However now is the time for others to begin supporting them to successfully spread the responsible gaming message.
Light at the End of the Tunnel?
Football clubs are reliant on the income they receive from the gambling industry. Without it we have seen, and will continue to see, clubs struggle financially. A blanket ban on these profitable partnerships is not the solution.
The introduction of a ‘levy’ like in horse racing could help appease all parties. With clubs and operators alike donating to better fund the education and promotion of responsible gaming.
Football clubs have massive fan bases. In turn they have a responsibility to promote positive behaviours. Through education and better informing fans, clubs can keep their fruitful relationships and promote responsible gaming.
Building trust, protecting players, supporting the gambling industry, and educating fans is a daunting task. However, its one football clubs must accept to maintain their sponsorship deals with the industry.