Blank generation

7 September 2020

Gambling sponsorship in sport has become widespread in recent years, but this ubiquity has drawn ever-louder criticism, Daniel O'Boyle writes. With bans either in place or incoming in Europe, will betting brands disappear from strips in the UK? And if so how can the industry adapt to the loss of a major marketing channel - and sport to a significant source of funding?  

Select a football team at random from the top two tiers of the English football pyramid. Chances are, its kit will be emblazoned with a gambling operator’s branding.

To some, the fact that betting sponsorships have become ubiquitous in sport represents a problem. Others would argue that it allows the industry to funnel money back into sport and helps keep sports clubs alive.

Betting sponsorship has become one of the highest profile ways for an operator to promote its brand, yet in Great Britain it could become a thing of the past. A ban is already in place in Italy, and a similar move in Spain is edging closer.

Britain’s influential Gambling-Related Harm All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) called for a ban on all gambling advertising in the UK, regardless of medium.

But a report from the House of Lords may have been more pertinent to the sponsorship question. Taking a more measured approach than the APPG to the industry in general, the Peers’ calls for a sponsorship ban gained more traction in the wider national press.

“Gambling advertising and sponsorship within certain types of sport, predominantly football, has mostly replaced tobacco and alcohol advertising which was previously prolific in such arenas,” the report said.

It may be too soon to be sure of the likelihood of a ban on sponsorship. But with the long-promised British Government review of the Gambling Act likely to get in motion soon, the debate is only just beginning.

Neil Banbury, UK General Manager of Kindred Group, whose 32Red brand sponsors Championship clubs Derby County, Middlesbrough, Preston North End and formerly Leeds United, says he couldn’t be sure whether a ban is likely. However Kindred would play a part in arguing for their continued existence, he adds.

“It’s still unclear, and the UK Government’s upcoming Gambling Act Review will undoubtedly keep many options on the table,” Banbury says. “Kindred is keen to be involved in the public conversation on the issue - as we feel there is much to be said for credible, responsible sponsorship that benefits sporting organisations and the communities they operate in.”

Normalising gambling?
On the other side of the debate, there are those who will push an end to gambling sponsorship.

Besides the House of Lords and APPG, campaign group Gambling With Lives has pushed for a ban on all gambling marketing through its The Big Step movement.

“Gambling sponsorship, advertising and marketing in football should end to stop children being exposed to gambling and to reduce gambling related harm,” The Big Step founder James Grimes says. “For those of us who have experienced gambling disorder, a common theme is of being lured in by a cascade of advertising.”

To Grimes, a former problem gambler, sponsorship deals at his local club of Peterborough United and elsewhere played a part in his addiction.

“Gambling sponsors and partners at my favourite football club normalised gambling, whilst the advertising, direct marketing and VIP schemes linked to football glamourised it.”

While Kindred may be an operator actively working to keep betting sponsorship around, some have made strange bedfellows with Gambling With Lives, the APPG and the House of Lords in calling for an end to the deals.

Ladbrokes Coral operator GVC has called for a ban on the practice in the UK in April 2019, with its Betdaq brand donating its sponsorship deals to charities.

Flutter’s Paddy Power, in typical fashion, announced its stance with a little more bravado.

It announced a partnership with Huddersfield that saw the Championship club take the pitch for a July 2019 friendly with a sash bearing the operator’s name. The event was then revealed to be a publicity stunt to help launch the bookmaker’s ‘Save Our Shirt’ campaign.

“Shirt sponsorship in football has gone too far; we accept that there is a role for sponsors around football, but the shirt should be sacred,” Paddy Power’s marketing director, Victor Corcoran, said at the time.

In other markets, the stance isn’t always the same. GVC’s brands have shown more willingness to sponsor in other markets, such as in Spain, where Valencia shirts bear Bwin’s brand.

Nonetheless, Grimes said he “welcomed” anyone - or business - who supported The Big Step’s cause.

But outside of operators, sports and campaign groups, how much of an issue is gambling sponsorship?

Looking at public opinion, the evidence may say more about the stakes of the discussion than what the public actually believes.

The Football League’s 2019 Supporters Survey found that 71% showed some sort of support for the practice: 62% of Football League fans found gambling sponsorship, “acceptable with suitable safeguards to protect the young and problem gamblers”. A further 9% found gambling sponsorship deals “acceptable under all circumstances’. So far so good for those with an interest in sponsorship deals.

Two months later, a survey of more than 1,200 fans carried out by the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA) in conjunction with GambleAware’s ‘Bet Regret’ campaign found a mere 13% of respondents say they would be, or are, happy for their club to be sponsored by a gambling company.

That discrepancy, with more than half of fans apparently willing to accept gambling sponsorship but not happy about it, shows supporters and opponents are both aware of the importance of at least being perceived to have public opinion on their side.

Yet it also suggests that the majority of the public are less polarised, and perhaps willing to be won over by the more persuasive side of the debate.

Can clubs adapt?
Among those who have Kindred’s back will be the Sky Bet-sponsored English Football League (EFL) - representing English football’s second, third and fourth tiers. It said the financial boost offered by betting operators was necessary for clubs. Especially given the drastic and unexpected loss of revenue created by the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

Across the EFL, clubs receive a combined £40m from betting sponsors, while estimates of Premier League front-of-shirt deals range from £10m annually for West Ham’s deal with Betway to £3m per year.

According to CMS Sports Consultancy, which helps broker many sponsorship deals, a League Two club that records £1 in annual commercial and ticket revenue would make around 12% of that total from its main shirt sponsorship deal.

In a year in which one Football League club entered liquidation and a second narrowly avoided the same fate even before the effects of the pandemic, the value a sponsorship deal brings could potentially help some clubs stay alive.

“The Covid-19 pandemic represents perhaps the biggest challenge to the finances of EFL clubs in their history, and with over £40m a season paid by the sector to the league and its clubs, the significant contribution betting companies make to the ongoing financial sustainability of professional football at all levels is as important now as it has ever been,” the EFL tells iGB.

“It remains the EFL’s view that the gambling industry should make a financial contribution back into football, given the significant revenues it generates from our matches without bearing any of the associated costs.

"This is currently being achieved through commercial partnerships with the EFL and a number of our member clubs.”

Grimes, rejects this outlook, noting that football clubs have moved beyond once-widespread alcohol and tobacco sponsors of the past.

“Football has a responsibility to put the long-term health & wellbeing of it's young fans over short term profit,” he says. “We heard the same fears about removing tobacco sponsors across sport and of course those sports that had claimed a reliance on tobacco sponsorship didn't collapse.

“We don’t want to minimise a possible financial impact on smaller clubs but we would urge them to start work now to identify commercial partners whose activities don’t do damage to their fans and their communities.”

The EFL also pointed to work it has done alongside Sky Bet to encourage responsible gambling, such as a safer gambling campaign with players wearing sleeve badges with responsible gambling messaging.

In addition, it added that it believed such a ban would not be based on any evidence that it would actually reduce harm.

“The association between football and the gambling sector is long-standing and the League firmly believes a collaborative, evidence based approach to preventing gambling harms that is also sympathetic to the economic needs of sport will be of much greater benefit than the blunt instrument of blanket bans,” it added.

Naturally, however much a sponsor is willing to pay for a sponsorship deal, it expects to make back more than that in revenue from new customers and increased engagement.

To Banbury, however, the benefits are more than commercial. Rather than encouraging problematic habits as Grimes argues, Banbury is confident that a responsible operator can do the opposite: use the platform to encourage responsible play.

“While the specific numbers are commercially sensitive, [sponsorship is] naturally beneficial to us as a brand,” Banbury says. “However, what is more important is the ability to be able to use sponsorships to develop responsible and controlled activations that promote healthier gambling behaviour.

“We’ve done a lot of work on that in the last 18 months, and plan to evolve it further in the coming year.”

If sponsorship does disappear, operators will likely have to find different ways to acquire new customers and keep the customers they do have engaged.

Yet Banbury was hesitant to discuss what marketing might look like if sponsorship deals are no longer an option, pointing instead to Kindred’s work to ensure it won’t have to worry about this scenario.

Precedent elsewhere
Where once much of the European industry followed Great Britain, bans on sponsorship have already been introduced elsewhere in Europe. In Italy, all marketing including sponsorship was banned in 2019, while in Spain a similar ban looks set to come into effect.

“It is too early to say what the impact has been for the market, consumers and clubs in those countries, but our broader view is the same - to remove the industry from the public eye does not help those who have a problem with gambling,” Banbury says.

Spain’s ban has faced major criticism from online operator association JDigital, which attacked it as not evidence based, designed to favour government-backed lottery operators, a potential boost to the illegal market and harmful to sport.

“The proposed measures will negatively affect sports, which will lose up to €80m in advertising revenues, as experienced in countries like Italy due to the ban on the advertising of gambling,” it explained in a letter to the European Commission.

An eye abroad
Back in Britain, however, the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC), has not said as much on sponsorship. In a statement to iGB, it pointed to its members’ recent record on advertising, such as the whistle-to-whistle ban.

It is “developing a new code of conduct on sponsorship and advertising that will further strengthen standards”, it added.

What that new code of conduct will look like, and the reaction from advocates of a ban, remains to be seen. However, a code for BGC members may not have a major impact on the most visible sponsors in football.

While Kindred is among the BGC members sponsoring clubs below the top flight, only one BGC member - Betway - holds a front-of-shirt deal with a Premier League club. Instead, operators sponsoring clubs in a league with a cumulative global audience of 3.2bn viewers often look beyond Britain for customers.

To the Global Lottery Monitoring System (GLMS), a non-profit body aimed at protecting sporting integrity, that’s the source of many problems in sponsorship today.

In a report published in July, the GLMS mentioned the risk in terms of both integrity and player protection created by Asia-facing sponsors who use sponsorship deals to target unregulated markets such as China.

Pointing to ‘warning signs’ such as use of Asian characters on a shirt, holding only a white label licence in its partner’s country or operating a ‘mirror website’ intended for customers in unregulated markets, it said these sponsors represented a major problem across Europe.

“Asian-facing operators leverage on their association with these teams to legitimise their products and target customers in unregulated markets in Asia,” GLMS president Ludovico Calvi explains.

Calvi made sure to stress, however, that this issue does not mean problems are inherent in sponsorship. Instead, he argued, sponsorship can bring great benefits for responsible gambling and integrity, provided more is done to select the right partners.

“GLMS is against any ban,” Calvi says. “We need to have clear rules but we need to make sure that licensed operators can promote and support sports transparently. Sports organisations need it.”

But how can this issue be tackled when it likely involves clubs passing up on the most lucrative deals? In Calvi’s view, a ‘Know Your Sponsor’ check, similar in spirit to the Football Association’s ‘Fit and Proper Person’ test or the Dutch ‘Know Your Owner’ rules, where potential owners face vetting before the purchase of a club, may be the solution.

“You have the ‘Know your Owner’ protocol in some FAs,” he explains. “It is only fair that if anyone is buying equity in a football club, they need to meet certain standards. But you could also have a ‘Know Your Sponsor’ assessment.

“If someone would like to sponsor a football club, background checks need to be carried out and if the potential candidates are Asian Facing betting operators targeting consumers in a jurisdiction where online betting is illegal, then they shouldn’t be allowed to sponsor a club.​"

Banbury does not mention a similar measure but agreed that too many major sponsors may not have eyes on the British market.

“It may be the case that other brands - particularly those that have less of a commitment to the UK market - do not view sponsorship in the same way [as Kindred],” he admits.

“It remains up to rights holders to determine who they want to partner with. However, I would like to see a higher bar required from gambling brands looking to get involved in sport in the UK.

“It would need to be determined what this would entail but it would seem a positive step towards setting up a much more sustainable and appropriate relationship between our industry and sport.”

However, Crystal Palace, sponsored by the Asia-facing W88, tells iGB it worked with the operator towards safer gambling goals.

But to most opponents of sponsorship, creation and enforcement of rules to weed out those with interest only in unregulated markets would likely not be enough. Given that viewers of sport include many children, Grimes says, settling for these restrictions would not do enough to address the core of the issue.

“There should be no 'soft options' when it comes to exposing children to gambling. Children as young as 8 can recall betting brands and are growing up thinking betting is a normal part of football,” Grimes says, citing a 2016 Australian study that showed the three quarters of children aged 8 to 16 years were able to recall the names of sports betting brands, with 26% able to name four or more.

“Instead they should be warned about the risks associated with it. Only ending gambling sponsorship and advertising in football will adequately protect our children from being exposed to gambling and its associated risks.

Indeed, the targeting of unregulated markets appears well down the list of priorities compared to domestic concerns, with Italy’s wide-ranging marketing ban still allowing sports clubs to sign betting partners for foreign markets: regulated or otherwise.

While local operators were forced out, SS Lazio signed up HQ Bet as its Chinese betting partner, JBO became Bologna FC’s Asia betting partner and 10Bet was named as Serie A champions Juventus’ ‘international partner’, representing all markets outside of Italy.

When the UK brings in its own long-awaited review of the Gambling Act, marketing restrictions may not be as severe as Italy, but sponsorship is surely at risk.

There’s plenty of room for reform, but it’s hard to miss that operators working on a responsible sponsorship message may be outflanked by those who could survive a ban on one side and those less interested in reform on the other.

With topics affecting a larger number of BGC members also on the table, a sponsorship ban might be a convenient compromise where those calling for restrictions can claim a victory without the British industry’s largest players feeling defeated.

That, however, would leave those working on more responsible sponsorship frameworks left in the cold.