Football’s worrying relationship with the gambling industry: Time for clubs to cash out?

It’s a cold, wet and windy January night, as Derby County play host to Stoke City in a bottom half fixture in English football’s second tier – an all-midlands clash which has rather generously been picked for Sky Sport’s Friday night TV coverage. Ahead of kick-off what made this encounter stick out like a sore thumb had little to do with action on the pitch, rather, it was a stark reminder of English football’s cosy relationship with the global gambling industry.

Hosts Derby were handing just a sixth league appearance to their new glamour signing. England record goal-scorer Wayne Rooney had arrived in January from MLS outfit DC United in a deal move that was not without its controversy. The transfer was described by some as a publicity stunt from betting firm 32 Red, who’s involvement in the deal created a sense of unease from many in the game. An abashedly unsubtle marketing ploy from 32Red stipulated in the terms of the player’s contract that Rooney must don the number 32 shirt (Pictured below). The firm were also said to have bought representatives to the negotiating table to push through an agreement would see the 34-year-old immediately named as club captain – a move which caused a sizeable stir among players and supporters alike. However, if any club could claim to have a closer relationship to the bookies than Derby themselves, it would visitors on the night Stoke City, in fact perhaps the only thing lacking in the cocktail of gambling advertising, was the fact was that the match was being played in Derby and not at Stoke City’s Bet365 stadium, the only stadium in the England for which a gambling company holds the naming rights. This is because Stoke’s owner, Peter Coates, is the co-founder of Bet 356. Add to this, the fact that this was a fixture being played in the SkyBet Championship. The UK betting firm (which is conveniently affiliated to the broadcaster which holds exclusive UK TV rights to fixtures across the three EFL divisions) owns the naming and primary sponsorship rights to the 3 EFL divisions – The Championship, League One and League Two. In all 15 of the Division’s 24 clubs don betting company logos on their shirts, down from 17 the previous season.

 

rooney number 32

 

If there is a case to be made for the clubs being sponsored by betting companies, it is that the clubs are dependent on the revenue generated from these deals in order to survive. Taking a closer look at the clubs who have gambling companies on their shirt, we can clearly see that these deals benefit a specific profile of club. In the Premier League, exactly half of the teams in England’s top divisions have betting company’s names on the front of their shirt. It is no coincidence that all of the division’s ‘big 6’ teams (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur) decided against giving shirt sponsorship space to gambling companies. However, the fact that all of these clubs still have partnerships with these companies suggests that are reliant upon them, just not to an extent which would put at risk their international reputation by emblazoning them on the front of their shirts. The Premier Clubs who are sponsored by gambling companies make up the majority of the division’s bottom half – 9 out 11 sides from 10th place downwards (with 6th  place Wolves the only gambling sponsored team currently sitting above 10th position) – shows that there is a direct correlation with the teams sponsored by gambling companies and those who are most desperate for  the money. At look Premier League Club’s 18/19 accounts (data below compiled by Kieran Maguire) illustrates the financial chasm between the big 6 and the rest of the league, with this in mind, it is understandable that many clubs look to the bookies to provide revenue.

kieron maguire graph

The Championship clubs who not sponsored by betting companies, 8 in all (Huddersfield being the anomaly as they are sponsored by Paddy Power, who launched a high profile campaign at the start of season not to show their logo on any of the teams they sponsored. However, many saw this merely as a publicity stunt), are very much the exception to the rule, and for the most part, there are mitigating factors as to why these clubs have escaped gambling companies clasp on the league. For 5 of the clubs, Luton Town, Barnsley, Charlton Athletic, Millwall and Brentford it comes down to their size. Relative to other teams they are amongst the smallest in the division in terms reputation and value.  The first 3 teams mentioned were only promoted to the Championship last season, whilst Millwall were also promoted fairly recently (2017). Brentford are admired for being a well-run club that is focused on longer term thinking when it comes to financial strategy. Henceforth their avoidance of utilising a gambling company as shirt sponsor could be seen as evidence of this. Another 2 clubs in the Division not sponsored by gambling companies are Cardiff and Sheffield Wednesday. Instead of using shirt sponsorship as a profit making mechanism, both clubs are used by their respective owners as vehicles for their own business ventures and as a result are sponsored by their owner’s companies rather than a third-party.

The fact that only 2 out 48 clubs from the third and fourth tiers – Leagues One and Two, have gambling companies on their shirt shows that securing a sponsorship deal with a betting firm is seen as a highly lucrative venture that is for the most part, only accessible for Championship and bottom half Premier League Clubs. Interestingly the 3 clubs across these divisions sponsored by gambling companies are Ipswich (newly relegated from the Championship) and Salford City (who receive a high amount of media exposure for a club at that division due to the fact that they are co-owned by 6 members of Manchester United’s ‘class of 92’).

It is hard to dispute the importance of that clubs place upon securing these deals. Premier League clubs make an estimated £70m per season from them.  Although the 15 sponsored Championship clubs make less per season from these deals at £45m, they are even more reliant upon them. A glance Championship club’s cumulative finances show that the division’s clubs combined operating losses tallied at £650m. At time where the financial future of clubs is  particularly uncertain clubs appear to be inclined to take anything they can get before questioning the morality of involving themselves in such deals. Speaking to Matt Zarb-Cousin in an interview for the Politics Hour, the director of Clean Up Gambling accepted that clubs dropping these sponsorship deals would require a “Short term calibration” but that there were alternative solutions such as a redistribution of wealth from Premier League clubs and the perusing of new alternative sponsorship. Matt also raised the point commonly levelled at those that have defended gambling advertising on the basis that clubs rely on them. He said that football has to move on from betting sponsorship in the same way that clubs had to move away from Tobacco advertising in the 80’s and alcohol advertising in the 90’s.

 

 

For those who are concerned by the presence of gambling advertising in football, there are developments emerging that give cause to believe that the ground on this is changing. This change is coming from forces both within football and those beyond the game. Brand consciousness is one such driving factor. As mentioned earlier in the article, all of the Premier League’s big 6 clubs have avoided using a gambling company as their shirt sponsor. However, it must be said that this could be partly down to the fact that clubs are able to peruse more lucrative ventures, rather than any moral objections. The shirt sponsorship deals for those clubs are worth the most in the league. In February, Everton mutually terminated their deal with SportPesa after the gambling firm had its offices closed in Kenya after disputes over tax affairs. The business had come under fire for fuelling gambling activity in a country where 500,000 young people had to default loans on gambling. In a statement, the Merseyside club said: “this has been a difficult decision but one that allows us to deliver on our commercial plan and grasp new opportunities open to us”. The statement is left open to interpretation, though the phrasing does hint at the club potentially moving away gambling sponsorship altogether. The approach that European clubs outside of England have taken in their response to gambling advertising is one that heaps further pressure on Premier League and Championship clubs to change their ways. In Italy, legislation was introduced last year, enforced from this season, which ruled that clubs could not advertise gambling companies on the front of their shirts. The opposition this received from Italian clubs is testament to the fact that introduce such a measure is unlikely to entirely smoothly, but nevertheless still enforceable. In the Germany’s Bundesliga – where many of the division’s clubs are admired for their smooth financial operations, only two clubs have gambling logo on their shirt. Paderborn 07 as main shirt sponsor and Mainz 05 as a sleeve sponsor.  It is notable that both these clubs are among the smallest in the division.

Whilst the transition of clubs away from gambling advertising is something that is only being done in tentative steps, the same cannot be said when it comes to sponsorship deals cut between individual players and brands. Players are now more conscientious than ever when it comes to their own personal brand and public image. The success of B-Engaged, an agency which explores commercial opportunities with players to improve their own brand shows that there is an appetite for this. Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin is a model example of the type off pitch personality which some players are now trying to reflect. The Spanish right back is vocal off the pitch about issues such as the environment, politics and veganism.

 

 

Even if we consider that players and some clubs may be open to change, the decisive action in provoking change is likely to come not from Wembley but from Westminster. Both of the major parties promised a review into the 2005 gambling act in their 2019 election manifestos. If Boris Johnson’s Conservative government falter to deliver on this, they can expect to be held to account by The Gambling Related Harm All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). The cross party group, led by Labour MP Carolyn Harris (pictured below) but also featuring MP’s from the Conservative Party (such as former leader Ian Duncan Smith), The Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Speaking to Politics Hour, Matt Zarb-Cousin said that the efforts to coordinate a way to crack down on harmful gambling (including measures to limit gambling advertising in football) “has to be cross party”. On how the government should tackle the issue, Zarb-Cousin said: “The Magnitude of the industry requires a serious response” and that efforts to do this “require a coordinated, joined up approach in government” rather treating it as something they can just “tack onto the end of the department for media culture and sport”. Speaking to the Athletic, Harris did not mince her words when speaking football’s future relationship with the gambling industry: “It will happen, clubs have never been so dependent on gambling companies on the first place”.

carolyn harris

So far, efforts to curb harmful gambling activity have been limited. The Senet Group’s: “When the fun stops, stop” campaign is perhaps the popular advertising campaign which aims to reduce harmful gambling. These adverts are frequently aired during breaks in sports broadcasts. Individual gambling companies are also airing their own adverts discouraging gambling. However, these adverts tend air after events are finished, particularly if they have taken place in the evening. Account controls, including deposits limits and account lockouts in order to restrict harmful gambling have also been introduced by online bookmakers. Zarb-Cousin is sceptical of the intentions of these measures, saying that they primarily have the effect of hooking people into gambling by reassuring them that is safe, rather than helping those that need to curb their gambling activity.

The issue of gambling advertisement in sport may have dropped down on the agenda since the outbreak of COVID: 19 has stopped all sporting activity in the UK, but there remains a feeling of inevitability that this is an issue that will need to be resolved one way or another.

 

(Words: Max Radwan)

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