For as long as there has been professional football, there have been legal avenues to gamble on the outcome of those football matches. Nobody is suggesting that there shouldn’t be. If the practice were ever banned, it would have a detrimental impact on the matchday experience of many football fans all over Europe. Even with that statement accepted as a fact, though, nobody could objectively state that the relationship between football and gambling has changed a lot in recent years, and nowhere more so than in England.
As of the 2019/2020 season, half of the clubs who play in the English Premier Division are sponsored by online betting companies and bookmakers. Drop down a division to the Championship, and that figure increases to more than half. This isn’t a conspiracy between the clubs and the betting firms – all the clubs are guilty of is selling advertising space to the highest bidder, and it would be foolish of them to turn the money down. Some of the betting firms, however, don’t even operate within the country. They’re spending millions of pounds on advertising to audiences outside the UK by having their names and logos plastered on soccer shirts in the UK.
We shouldn’t be surprised that so many gambling firms have the kind of financial resources to allow for sponsorship on this level. The revenue of the online casino industry is rapidly approaching fifty billion dollars per year worldwide, and rising exponentially. Companies that started off with a single online slots website now offer full sports betting, UK slots and live casino facilities. Where they’ve stopped focusing on online slots, brand new casino websites have appeared to fill the void. At the same time, online slots and activities like it have become legal in more and more places around the world. There’s never been a better time to be involved in the digital casino world, and there’s also probably never been a better time to be a reasonably high-ranking football club looking for sponsorship.
Inevitably though, there have been protestations from some groups that the connection between football and gambling has become too strong and preys too heavily upon vulnerable people. Only a few short years ago, it was agreed that ‘in play’ odds would no longer be advertised during football matches to stop people from being tempted into an impulsive bet. On top of that, gambling companies agreed to stop advertising during games, immediately before kick-off, and immediately after games ended. It was hailed as a noble move, but as many people observed when the identities of this year’s shirt sponsors became known, the voluntary advertising ban is irrelevant when there’s a gambling logo on the shirt of one or both of the teams playing for the entire 90 minutes of the contest.
The concern about the level of visibility afforded to gambling companies during football matches isn’t limited to the potential effect on adults with gambling issues. It also extends to the level of exposure that children and young teenagers receive. Some, but not all, of the teams who have gambling-related sponsorship offer replica kits for sale to young fans free of the gambling logos. Even in those cases, though, young fans still see the advertising during games. It is illegal to market gambling towards children in the United Kingdom, just as it is in the rest of Europe. Some feel that the presence of gambling sponsors on football shirts is a violation of those laws.
Because of the ongoing controversy, there have been some suggestions that gambling firms are willing to back out of the market voluntarily. Despite the way that the industry is viewed in some quarters of the press, the more reputable firms have a history of funding counseling for gambling addiction, and also voluntarily stepping away from areas of controversy if public opinion turns against them. This could be one such example. Earlier in the week, it was revealed that The Betting and Gaming Council, which speaks for 90% of all gambling companies in the United Kingdom, has revealed that there’s an ongoing discussion within the industry to pull sponsorship from shirts once all currently-agreed deals expire.
Before charities and campaign groups could even voice their thoughts on the proposal, though, there was news from one of the senior figures in English football that seemed to directly contradict the statement that the Betting and Gaming Council had put out only hours before. Richard Masters, who replaced Richard Scudamore as the Premier League’s Chief Executive last December, said that the league was ‘not sniffy about gambling sponsors,’ and added that he didn’t see an issue as the league itself doesn’t have an official gambling partner. Shirt sponsorship, according to Masters, is a matter for individual clubs.
There’s also the question of who will plug the gap if the gambling companies do walk away. Although Premier League clubs earn many millions of pounds each season, the majority of them spend almost everything they earn in the battle to either stay in the division or compete at its higher echelons. A sudden and sharp drop in income become of the loss of major sponsorship partners would likely be all that it takes to put at least some clubs in the top two divisions of football in serious financial difficulty. John Coates, who owns both Bet365 and Stoke City, says that the club couldn’t survive without the money that Bet365 pays to it for sponsorship purposes and that there were no other sponsors available willing to pay anything like the amount that Bet365 does for the advertising space. Although his position is unique due to his connection to both entities, it would be reasonable to suspect that many clubs are in a similar position.
This isn’t an issue that will be resolved immediately. Many of the current shirt sponsorship partners of the Premier League’s clubs have contracts that run for two or more years to come, and there’s no appetite to implement rules that would jeopardize or make illegal any of those arrangements. There’s also the far-from-trivial matter that no laws have been broken, and so the matter is one of perceived morality rather than legality. Gambling sponsors on football shirts will stick around for now, but five seasons from now? Don’t bet on it.