Shirts sponsorships in Labour’s ‘new puritan’ sights
The lucrative partnerships between Premier League teams and gambling companies are under threat in the UK as the triennial review looms and the opposition party calls for an outright ban. Scott Longley investigates.
The current English Premier League season may yet be come to be seen as a high-water mark when it comes to the number of shirts that are sponsored by gambling companies.
In total, nine teams feature gambling companies on their shirts – West Ham, Newcastle United, Everton, Crystal Palace, Swansea City, Bournemouth, Stoke City, Huddersfield Town and Burnley – while the rest have differing forms of betting partnerships and sponsorships as part of their commercial relationships.
Since the relaxation of the rules regarding the advertising of gambling services that was a part of the Gambling Act of 2005, gambling advertising has come to be seen as a fixture and fitting of the English game.
It is also a valuable income stream. Sources suggest that the nine Premier League sponsorship deals are worth up to £50m a year. But this high-profile relationship doesn’t come without its controversies and the latest intervention from the shadow culture secretary Tom Watson might yet signal that the gambling sector's shirt sponsorship boom is over.
Early 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 (DCMS), but this move marks a further escalation of the anti-gambling stance being taken by the Labour Party opposition.
“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 in October,” 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 day
The football clubs are understandably tight-lipped about the potential of a move on shirt sponsorship. None of the clubs directly involved in the Premier League responded to our queries and their gambling partners were similarly unwilling to comment.
All we have is a statement from Letou where a spokesperson told the papers that “betting on football is as old as the game itself” which “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.”
However, this attempt at dialogue appears to be in danger of getting lost as the increasingly shrill public debate over gambling issues increases in its vehemence. Moreover, it gives opportunistic politicians the chance to gain some easy headlines, says David Clifton, director at the Clifton Davies Consultancy.
“With 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 the early part of the summer when it was announced that the English Football Association and Ladbrokes were bringing to a halt their £4m-a-year commercial relationship.
The statement from the FA at the time made it clear it was integrity issues – and in particular the Joey Barton case – that had influenced the body’s rethink.
“At the May FA board meeting, it was agreed that the FA would end all sponsorships with betting companies starting 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 at the time that it understood the FA’s new stance but it won’t be the only company fretting about the reduced marketing options should the more draconian Labour measures ever hit the statute book.
Alongside the potential for gambling TV advertising to be further restricted, it makes the UK a far tougher market to advertise in than was the case even just a couple of years ago.
A grey strip
Yet arguably the biggest impact an end to shirt sponsorship deals in the UK would have would be on markets further afield. For all that the sponsors involved in the deals mentioned earlier have UK licences, it is a fair estimate that none of them have the UK as their main target market.
The majority are Asian-facing – Fun88 (Newcastle), M88 (Bournemouth), ManBetx (Palace), Letou (Swansea City), Dafabet (Burnley), Ope Sports (Huddersfield) – and SportPesa at Everton is Kenya-facing.
Only Stoke City is sponsored by what might be called a frontline UK brand (complicated by the shared ownership of the Coates family and bet365’s own substantial Chinese footprint) while Betway at West Ham is a big-spending challenger UK brand.
These last two would arguably be the brands most impacted by any potential move but what is intriguing is that none of the complainants about the proliferation of shirt sponsorships has commented on the apparent lack of UK-facing operators involved.
Potentially this is because it (maybe only marginally) weakens their case about protecting the young and the vulnerable but given the Gambling Commission’s own somewhat confusing position on grey markets it perhaps not surprising.
As it stands, football’s gambling shirt sponsorships are just one more highly visible sign of the degree to which the previous Labour government left behind a policy on online gambling that was full of loopholes – and that clearly doesn’t sit well with football kits.
Related articles: UK industry is on warning over advertising (paywall)
Far Eastern Promise of football sponsorships (paywall)
English FA ends partnership with Ladbrokes
Labour calls for ban on football shirt betting sponsorship
DCMS to review gaming machines, social responsibility measures