Far Eastern Promise of football sponsorships
The influx of Asia-facing gambling brands as Premier League shirt sponsors and clubs’ official betting partners shows little sign of slowing down. But what exactly is the appeal and how do operators benefit from these deals? Julian Rogers reports
When the top tier of English football rebranded as the Premier League almost 25 years ago, companies emblazoned across club shirts tended to be purveyors of computer equipment, alcoholic beverages and industrial chemicals.
Fast forward to this season and more than half of the top flight’s 20 club sides now have multimillion-pound shirt sponsorship deals with online gambling companies.
Interestingly, though, seven sides are now sponsored by Asia-based and/or Asia-facing operators: Sunderland and Burnley (Dafabet), West Bromwich Albion (UK-K8.com), Watford (138.com), Swansea City (BETEAST) and Crystal Palace and AFC Bournemouth (Mansion).
As for the other three clubs promoting gambling brands, Hull City are sponsored by Kenya’s SportPesa while West Ham still have shirt deals with Betway and Stoke City with bet365 (whose owners, the Coates family, also own the football club and have renamed the stadium).
Manchester United’s arrangement with Chevrolet, which is valued at £47m a year, helped drive total shirt sponsorship deals for this season to £226.5m, according to Sporting Intelligence.
However, sponsorship involving betting firms, who have since 2014 had to hold UK gambling licences to sponsor English clubs, accounts for just over 15% of this figure, with deals ranging from £1.5m and £6m a year (see chart).
The tie-ups also tend to be fairly short in length – usually one to three years – and mainly involve sides that either finished in the bottom half of the table last season or are newly promoted, rather than those regularly competing for a Champions League spot or the title.
The rationale is that even when one of the less fashionable club’s sporting a betting logo clashes with a title contender in a televised game, it’s still great global exposure for an operator’s brand.
Ideally, a betting operator – or any brand for that matter – sponsoring a smaller club wants the side to grab TV time by surviving a relegation dogfight, enjoying a good cup run or by emerging as a surprise package, à la relegation-fodder-turned-champions Leicester City last season.
The undesirable scenario is either the team coasting under the radar to mid-table mediocrity or, much worse still, crashing through the trap door into the Championship.
Indeed, it appears some of these betting companies are hedging their bets by signing short-term deals in case their club ends up relegated.
Cost is also a major factor, with the deals ranging from £1.5m to £6m, a much cheaper proposition than securing a sponsorship with one of the major Premier League clubs.
Eyes on the prize
Broadcast into over 900 million homes in 190 countries, there’s no denying the Premier League is by far the world’s most popular football league.
And despite games kicking off in the evening or middle of the night on Asian time zones, the glamour clubs attract fervent support in that part of the globe along with colossal betting volumes.
“In short, it comes down to the massive reach that the EPL [English Premier League] has,” says Dafabet’s head of sports marketing and sponsorship, John Cruces, when discussing why his company sponsors Premier League clubs.
“Simply put, the number of eyes reached on a weekly basis is second to none in terms of domestic football – the actual Asian viewing numbers are also more than that of the combined viewership from the UK, Europe and Central America.”
Also drawn by the league’s appeal in the Far East, betting giant SBOBET adorned West Ham United’s shirts for four years up until 2013 (the Asian firm exited the UK as 15% PoC tax didn’t suit 1% gross margins on Asian Handicap markets).
“SBOBET identified the value of Premier League as a marketing vehicle for the Asian markets,” says Bill Mummery, executive director of Celton Manx, parent company of SBOBET.
“In part, of course, it was predicated on the global footprint of television that the Premier League has, but also the quality and trust there is in the product. At the same time, I believe the leading Asia-facing remote gambling brands brought a new audience and supporters to some of the teams.”
And any UK customers acquired along the way was “very much a by-product”, Mummery adds.
The perfect match
Besides shirt deals, no self-respecting Premier League club would be without at least one ‘official betting partner’ these days; it is very much in vogue.
While these deals have hitherto largely involved tier-one UK brands, Asia-facing operators are now muscling in on the action.
For instance, TLCBET became Middlesbrough’s betting and gaming partner in August while Dafabet’s international betting partner is Everton – a club Cruces says was deliberately targeted due to its presence in Asia and partnership with Thailand’s Chang beer, which is the longest-serving shirt deal in the league.
Meanwhile, 12BET recently inked deals to become an official betting partner of Leicester City and an official betting partner in Asia for Arsenal.
The latter arrangement affords 12BET particular kudos in the Far East. “A rubber stamp from an institution like Arsenal arguably gives more credibility than a rubber stamp from a financial institution,” says spokesman Rory Anderson.
As well as the credibility that comes with being an official betting partner and having the club’s crest on a betting site homepage, gambling brands get access to clubs’ huge fan bases for marketing purposes. Star players are also often used for promotional material.
“While a club is unlikely to hand over its database, it would typically send out marketing to its fans on behalf of its partners,” says Andrew Danson, a partner at law firm K&L Gates.
“It’s also common for the gambling partner to operate a club-branded site, through which both parties benefit financially.”
Get your message across
12BET’s deal involves its messaging being displayed on the LED digital advertising systems encompassing both club’s pitches during home matches.
However, the actual size and quality of the advertising boards, as well as the TV camera angles, need to be considered when selecting a club and aiming to maximise ‘camera time’ and eyeballs seeing your brand.
Anderson says: “A general rule is the lower the camera gantry, the better exposure your boards receive while the quality of the system itself – how many pixels and how bright it is – all affects the amount and quality of exposure you receive.”
And, of course, it helps if your betting partner is a regular fixture on TV. “Arsenal had more televised games than any other side last season, so being involved with top clubs gives you increased exposure – this is where we want to be.”
As well as pitch-side advertising, gambling companies are popping up on club’s training kits and even the name of the stadium; Stoke City’s ground is now the bet365 Stadium. But just how all these sponsorship deals and betting partnerships aid with acquisition, retention and, of course, impact an Asian operator’s bottom line, is hard to gauge.
“Clearly, you cannot track such marketing spend in the same way that you can with, for example, online marketing,” Anderson explains.
“That said, over the past six years we have had deals with Newcastle, West Brom, Birmingham City, Wigan, Crystal Palace and Swansea, so we have more data than most. During this time, we have seen strong indicators that would suggest that it’s effective both in terms of acquisition and retention. And there is no doubt that it increases the awareness of the 12BET brand.”
Furthermore, it seems to instill trust in a brand when bettors are choosing where to deposit their hard-earned cash. “To be a sponsor in the EPL there are a number of stringent requirements that rightly need to be met,” says Dafabet’s John Cruces.
“By doing so, we believe that being on the front of the shirts in the EPL and in the Champions League [with Celtic] that we’re seen as a trusted, reputable brand. This, therefore, should give potential new players confidence in us.”
And with bucket-loads of money sloshing around the league from a record TV deal, which means clubs can attract the world’s best talent, betting brands will still want to be associated with what’s dubbed the most exciting league in the world.
The challenge, of course, is being heard above all that ‘noise’.