Don't put your shirt on it

Don't put your shirt on it

The lucrative partnerships between English Premier League teams and gambling companies are under threat from the triennial review and the opposition’s calls for an outright ban.

Published 21st December 2017

THE CURRENT ENGLISH Premier League season may come to be seen as a high-water mark for the number of shirts sponsored by gambling companies.

In total, nine teams feature gambling companies on their shirts – West Ham, Newcastle, Everton, Crystal Palace, Swansea, Bournemouth, Stoke,Huddersfield and Burnley – and the other 11 have differing forms of betting partnerships and sponsorships as part of their commercial relationships.Since the relaxation of the rules in the Gambling Act 2005 regarding the advertising of gambling services, gambling 
advertising has become a fixture of the English game.

It is also a valuable income stream. Sources suggest that those nine Premier League sponsorship deals are worth as much as £50m a year. But this highprofile relationship doesn’t come without controversy and a recent intervention from the shadow culture secretary, Tom Watson, suggests that some politicians wish that the gambling sector’s shirt sponsorship boom ends soon.

In September, Watson announced that it was football’s responsibility to “play its part in tackling Britain’s hidden epidemic of gambling addiction” by stopping gaming-related advertising.“Shirt sponsorship sends out a message that football clubs don’t take problem gambling among their own fans seriously enough,” he said. “It puts gambling brands in front of fans of all ages, not just at matches but on broadcasts and highlights packages on both commercial television and the BBC.”

Advertising is already part of the upcoming triennial review being conducted by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport but this is an escalation of the anti-gambling stance being taken by the Labour Party.“There is a sense that Labour is just getting warmed up,” says Dan Waugh, partner at gambling consultancy Regulus Partners. He points out that in the same week that Labour aired its new policy, the gambling minister Tracey Crouch fielded five parliamentary questions on gambling issues.

“Labour’s hostility does not augur well for the outcome of the gambling review,” Waugh adds.“The current spate of gambling controversies provides [Jeremy] Corbyn’s team with the chance of not only putting the Government on the spot but also clipping the Blairite wing of their party.

Shouting match of the dayThe football clubs are understandably tight-lipped about the future of shirt sponsorship. None of the clubs mentioned responded to our queries and their gambling partners were similarly unwilling to comment. 

However, a spokesperson for Letou (a Swansea sponsor) told the press:“Betting on football is as old as the game itself… [It] provides an entertaining sideshow for adult supporters both in the stadium and watching at home…

There is a wide range of industries associated with sport whose target audience is adults rather than children and we would welcome the opportunity to talk with sports administrators and politicians to identify ways to work together and address the challenges which may exist.”

But this attempt at a dialogue appears in danger of getting lost as the public debate about gambling issues becomes increasingly shrill. Moreover, it gives opportunistic politicians the chance to gain some easy headlines, says David Clifton, director at the Clifton Davies Consultancy. “With the current levels of negative public opinion about gambling — whether heavily influenced by sensationalist newspaper headlines or not — it is not altogether surprising to see politicians seizing the opportunity to jump on a passing bandwagon,” he says. 

“The bigger threat to the industry will be the outcome of the ongoing government review into the impact of gambling advertising on children and vulnerable people.”The degree to which the relationship between football and gambling is being scrutinised was already evident in early summer when it was announced that the English Football Association and Ladbrokes were bringing to an end their £4m-a-year commercial relationship.

The statement from the FA at the time made clear that it was issues of integrity — and in particular the Joey Barton case — that had influenced the decision. “At the May FA board meeting, it was agreed that the FA would end all sponsorships with betting companies from the end of the 2016-17 season,” the FA said. “The decision was made following a three-month review of the FA’s approach to it as a governing body taking betting sponsorship, whilst being responsible for the regulation of sports betting within the sport’s rules.”

Ladbrokes was keen to stress that it understood the FA’s stance. It won’t be the only company worried about the reduced marketing options should the more draconian Labour measures become law.Those measures, alongside the possibility of a further restriction of gambling advertising on TV, would make the UK a far tougher market to advertise in than was the case just a couple of years ago.

A grey strip Arguably, the impact of an end to shirt sponsorship deals in England would be felt most in markets much further afield. Although all the nine sponsors mentioned have UK licences, it is a fair bet that none has the UK as its target market. The majority are Asian-facing — Fun88 (Newcastle), M88 (Bournemouth), ManBetx (Crystal Palace), Letou (Swansea), Dafabet (Burnley), Ope Sports (Huddersfield) — and SportPesa at Everton is Kenya-facing.

Only Stoke is sponsored by what might be called a front-line UK brand: bet365 (but this is complicated by the Coates family’s shared ownership and bet365’s substantial Chinese footprint). Betway at West Ham is a big-spending challenger UK brand.

These last two firms would probably be most affected by any new law but what’s intriguing is that none of the complaints about shirt sponsorship has commented on the apparent lack of UK-facing operators involved. Perhaps this is because that fact weakens — marginally if at all — the argument that this is about protecting the young and the vulnerable in the UK. But, because of the Gambling Commission’s somewhat confusing position on grey markets, it’s maybe unsurprising after all.

As it stands, football’s gambling sponsorships are just one more highly visible sign of the degree to which the last Labour government left behind a policy on online gambling that was full of loopholes — and which clearly doesn’t sit well with football kits