The Debate Over Banning Betting Companies Sponsoring Football
The widespread and entrenched involvement of betting companies in modern football has been a longstanding underlying debate simmering beneath the global game. Since the turn of the millennium, it has been commonplace for the majority of clubs to have betting partners in some capacity from stadium advertising boards to front-of-shirt sponsorships.
In more recent times, there has been a shift in the attitudes towards this reality and well-supported calls for restrictions and bans upon such open and uncensored exposure for gambling. There are huge financial implications behind such a decision to ban this sponsorship sector and many other factors to be considered. In this blog, we will first look at how the bans have been implemented and materialised in countries that have already taken action before exploring how other national associations and governments are set to follow suit.
The Example Set by Spain and Italy
Back in 2018, 15 Serie A clubs had sponsorship deals with betting companies, the largest being Roma’s €15million annual income from Betway. Then from 2019, the Italian government intervened and introduced a complete ban on any betting company partnerships in professional football in the country. This was met with large appeals from the Italian Football Federation (IFF) during the COVID-19 pandemic as the impact of the estimated €100m loss was felt even harder by clubs in an already financially difficult time. This appeal was overruled by the government and ever since, sponsorship agreements with gambling companies have ceased to exist in the Italian football landscape.
Following the example set in Italy, La Liga also introduced a similar ban for the 2021-22 season. The decision to implement the ban was made very late on, with little time before the commencement of the season and ultimately, eight clubs began the campaign without a primary sponsor. This cost clubs a cumulative total of around €90million.
As the ban has materialised, inevitably, clubs and stakeholders have found various methods of exploiting loopholes in the bans placed upon betting company partnerships. One way in which this has been seen, particularly in Italy, is by the broadcasters. When Serie A games are shown abroad, the broadcasting companies have devised the technology to superimpose imagery of advertising boards for the betting companies and have maintained their ability to partner with them. Additionally, by technicality clubs can also still enter into ‘international’ partnerships with betting companies so long as the obligations of the partnerships are not performed within the jurisdiction affected by the ban. For example, Real Madrid have established lucrative sponsorship deals with large gambling brands based in Asia, Africa and Latin America. So long as these are not advertised and promoted in Spain, this abides by the laws surrounding sponsorship deals with betting companies. Hence, the so-called ‘blanket ban’ has been manipulated to still facilitate for some extent of sponsorship and has not completely eradicated the involvement of gambling brands in football in these regions.
Elsewhere, the Belgian government has finalised their own plans to replicate the ban beginning in 2025 and, as we will discuss in the next section, the English Premier League is working with the British government around implementing a compromised but meaningful ban as well. On the other hand, betting sponsorships remain undisturbed and unthreatened in France and the Netherlands. The French FA itself has a 5-year deal with Betclic whilst the Dutch football association has suggested that gambling partnerships are far too valuable to dispense of, generating a revenue of between €40-70million for clubs such as Fortuna Sittard annually.
To keep this section short, there are several key motives behind restricting or banning gambling partnerships in football but they all revolve around the dangers posed by increased exposure to sports betting and casinos. Gambling addiction is a worldwide problem and it can ruin the lives of any individual. The issue therefore is that football should not be seen as promoting an unethical and immoral product that has such negative connotations. Particularly as football is viewed by so many minors, an unavoidable exposure to gambling promotions harms the image of the beautiful game as beneficial for society and humanity.
The dangers and criticism of gambling is not an unfamiliar phenomenon for the British government. It is estimated that 9% of the UK population participate in sports betting and gambling addiction has been a significant problem with around 245,000 people in the UK now classified as ‚problem gamblers‘. The value of the industry is astronomical with around £14billion being lost through betting in 2019 alone. The majority of this is lost by betting on football matches; Sportsradar estimates that football accounts for 70% of the annual worth of sports match betting revenue globally which is estimated to be between $700bn to $1tn from legal and illegal activity.
It is suggested that the problem is exacerbated, or at least not helped, by the relentless exposure to betting advertising experienced by spectators and TV-viewers of football matches. In the 2002-03 season, Betfair were the first betting partner in English football and this was the beginning of a gradual takeover by gambling partners. Nowadays, according to the investigation in Channel 4’s documentary, Gambling’s Football Addiction, in most televised football games, the logos of gambling companies can appear more than 700 times in a match. That equates to 6 appearances per minute and is practically unavoidable by any watcher. The likelihood is also that any fan who purchases merchandise from their club, will wear the logos of betting companies on the clothing. 17 out of the 20 clubs in the Premier League and 17 out of the 24 teams in the Championship are linked with Official Betting Partners and sport their brands upon their training and playing kit. Fulham are the most prolific ‘betting partner’ club, having had 5 gambling brands as their primary partner in 7 of the last 10 seasons. The three tiers of the English Football League are all sponsored by SkyBet and many of the largest clubs have primary sponsorship deals with a variety of gambling brands.
Despite this, the UK government has resisted making a decisive judgement and enforcing a mandatory ban on betting partnerships in English football. Instead, the government decided that the best strategy in tackling this problem is to leave the decision to the English Football Association to voluntarily devise and implement their own methods of combating the current situation. They offer their support by carrying out white-paper studies and independent research to provide useful insight into the exact problems, impacts and areas affected by such sponsorship deals. The government is also currently conducting a full comprehensive review of gambling laws which will likely have a knock-on effect on the manner in which the FA finalises their decisions on football and betting partnerships. The current situation of Premier League clubs involved in primary front-of-shirt betting sponsorships is worth around £60m per year across eight clubs as follows:
|SOON: Aston Villa||BK8||Begins 2023, Expires 2026|
In light of external pressure from the government; the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; and wider campaigns, a vote took place last week. The vote consulted all of the Premier League clubs and asked them to express their own opinion on whether partnerships with gambling companies should be banned. As seen in the table above, the traditional ‘big 6’ are not usually the ones to sign major agreements with betting companies but it is the next calibre of clubs. Previously, only a ban on using the betting company logos of youth or academy kits was in place. However, the statement made by the Premier League this week confirmed that the clubs had “collectively agreed to withdraw gambling sponsorship from the front of matchday shirts”. A ‘three-year phase-out’ process will now begin, ending at the conclusion of the 2025/26 season. After these three years and for the start of the 2026-27 season, betting companies will no longer be permitted as front-of-shirt or primary sponsors of English professional football clubs. The ban will not be as strict as elsewhere in Europe though, as the partnerships will still be permissible within the UK jurisdiction and will even still be legally visible as sleeve sponsors on club kit.
Most current deals are worth around £6-10million per season. However, all of the clubs listed in the table above will be required to source new primary commercial partners for the 2026-27 season. There is also a substantial probability that the ban will also manifest itself into the EFL. It is estimated that for the EFL and their lucrative deal with SkyBet, this will cost clubs around £40million per year if this is no longer permitted. Hence, the objection to such a ban is that smaller and less financially robust clubs will be significantly impacted and disadvantaged by restricting the income from sponsorship opportunities available to them. It is well-known that betting companies are willing to offer substantially more in sponsorship than companies from many other industries and are therefore usually more enticing for clubs outside of the ‘extraordinarily wealthy’ category.
There will be no choice if the withdrawal extends to the lower tiers of English football however, and these clubs will have to seek sponsorship revenue and fundraising elsewhere. Once this immediate financial loss is absorbed, it is hoped that clubs will be able to source sustainable and more ethical sponsorship agreements. The majority of football fans and stakeholders are confident that clubs will be able to adapt and adjust to the new sponsorship landscape and not be disadvantaged in the long term.
Another point to consider is that these changes will open the door to an increase in sponsorship agreements from new and modern industries and sectors. For example, the increasing popularity of Cryptocurrency and blockchain and the companies at the forefront of the industries could create a refreshing hotspot for sponsorship agreements. This sector may be a timely and equally lucrative source of commercial partnerships for football clubs and its growth could be accelerated by the removal of betting companies as competition.
Gambling partnerships in football are an interesting area of football business that will play out over the next few years, perhaps culminating in a total and comprehensive blanket ban on betting sponsorships and partnerships in any level of football. Some national associations and governments are ahead of the curve whilst others are taking the time to best strategise how to reduce the negative impact of betting companies as commercial partners in football. It is a serious issue that needs to be regulated and considered thoroughly globally.
Perhaps one lasting thought on such a topic, if exposure to gambling advertisements is being restricted and erased so dramatically despite their long-standing financial contributions to football, is there also an argument that the same bans should apply to alcohol brands similarly to how smoking companies were banned from sports involvement decades ago, and then maybe even to unhealthy fast food chains and sugary drinks? Alcohol has been removed from front-of-shirts but are there not further amendments that should be made going forward to all of the ‘bad influence’ commercial partners?