Feature

Over the odds: has football got a gambling problem?

As the football season comes to a climax with this week's Europa League and Champions League finals, we look at the role of betting brands in fuelling the game's worldwide expansion.

Does football have a gambling problem? That’s the question we put to every club in the English Premier League – and a few in the Scottish Premiership. Leicester City didn’t want to chat, Huddersfield Town declined to comment and Burnley FC accidentally put us through to the kitchens at Turf Moor. The only club willing to comment was Brighton & Hove Albion, which doesn’t have any betting partnerships. So the question remains – what don’t they want to talk about?

Gambling on football is worth an estimated £1.4bn a year in the UK to betting brands such as Dafabet, William Hill and Ladbrokes, according to industry regulator the Gambling Commission. Gambling dominates the English Premier League’s sponsorship, utilizing the multichannel coverage the sport receives across TV, radio and online in the UK and around the world.

In contrast, Italy has issued a ban on betting firms marketing from next season, which will impact more than half the teams in top tier Serie A alone. Such a ruling would be devastating for English clubs, which flog the sponsorship of shirts and training kits, have partnerships that stretch to stadium activations and affiliate marketing and, in the case of Stoke City FC, sell naming rights to their home grounds.

For clubs spending ever-larger amounts in their pursuit of silverware, betting firms are an important ally. Rivals Manchester United and Manchester City generated €388m in commercial revenue last year, pulling in cash from over 100 commercial deals including their respective team-ups with MoPlay and Marathonbet. Nine out of the Premier League’s 20 clubs carry a betting firm on their shirts and the industry’s footprint is even more pronounced in the second tier of the English game, where betting firms sponsor 17 out of the 24 clubs. While all but one Premier League team touts an ‘official betting partner’, Tottenham Hotspur has three.

As football expands into the US, site of the 2026 Fifa World Cup, and throughout the Asia Pacific region, betting firms are seeking to piggyback clubs’ worldwide reach and their positions as trusted brands.

Social Scorecard, a report by search marketing agency Red Hot Penny, recently found that top clubs such as United, City, Spurs, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool lay claim to some of the largest social constituencies in British sport. The latter's coach Jurgen Klopp even appeared in TV ads for sponsor BetVictor, before the FA intervened in 2017.

According to sports marketer Richard Gillis, formerly of Havas-owned Cake, football partnerships are particularly attractive to online betting companies aiming to make a mark in the offline world. “Once you’re online, the only way of differentiating between one betting shop and another is by the odds they are offering. Football clubs have been around for donkey’s years and a shirt is a way for the market to remember you. That is a significant advantage to a betting company you may never have heard of.”

Now running strategic communications consultancy Unofficial Partner, Gillis explains the lure of football: “It targets people who like betting, and it lands brands and gives them a concrete presence in a world that lacks it.”

Not all of this is one-way traffic. In February, GambleAware, a charity dedicated to minimizing the harmful effects of gambling, launched its ‘Bet Regret’ campaign. Produced by M&C Saatchi, the work showed young men regretting their bets in mundane, relatable situations, such as the post-pub kebab shop queue or watching trash TV, before being berated by experts sitting in a shiny-floor studio for their foolishness.

Strategy partner Sophie Lean says the campaign was designed to reach “a wide group of bettors who are engaging with some risky behavior around betting” and persuade them to pull back from making bets when they are bored or drunk. “The main thing we’re looking for is to change people’s views on how they moderate their betting. We want ‘bet regret’ to be wound into the cultural dialogue.”

Zoe Osmond, campaign advisor for GambleAware, says the campaign aims to ameliorate the impact of gambling advertising around last year’s World Cup. “There was this bombardment by all the operators. Every game seemed inundated by gambling ads, which created this huge audience of football bettors.”

The campaign, backed by the Department for Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) and Public Health England, has benefited from media inventory donations from Channel 4, BT Sport and ITV, as well as a $1m inventory donation by Google.

The search giant’s contribution will help the campaign make inroads online and on TV, says Osmond. “It’s essentially trying to follow where that target audience are spending their money throughout the day, following their betting behavior.”

However, the activity is merely “a tiny little drop in the ocean” compared with the hundreds of millions spent by the gambling industry around football, Osmond says.

Illustrating the dominance of gambling ads, ‘Bet Regret’ debuted during the half-time break of United v Liverpool in February, flanked by spots for Bet365, Sky Bet and Paddy Power.

As the game modernizes through the addition of video-assisted referee (VAR) tech and through changing attitudes toward the women’s game, the arithmetic for brands using clubs as marketing vehicles may also change. Gillis suggests that the sponsorship playbook established by betting brands in the UK will soon be exported to the US, as firms such as William Hill – operating in 17 states since a Supreme Court decision last year effectively legalized sports betting – expand.

“It’s a significant moment because you’re about to see some very big bets being made on customer acquisition in the US. And because it’s worked in football, they’ll do it in the NBA or the NFL or wherever they’re allowed,” he predicts.

Creative agency Dark Horses was chosen earlier this year to lead Puma’s campaign for the 2019 Women’s World Cup. For founder and Spurs fan Simon Dent, the game faces “an exciting time”, though he wonders how long women’s teams will resist betting money in the form of sponsors and partnerships as their audience grows. “Can it enter the same level of the men’s game without the money of betting? A lot of money has been put into the sport by gambling brands, but there are wider repercussions for young fans.”

Pointing to SportsBet’s sponsorship of this summer’s Conifa European Championships (a tournament for national associations not recognized by Fifa), Dent suggests that operators should focus less on flaunting the odds. “As a brand, you can imagine the amount of goodwill that this betting company is getting by essentially enabling a tournament for unrecognized nations to take place,” he says.

When asked about future ties between gambling firms and football clubs, Dent is less ambivalent. Despite having worked with SportsBet on its European Championships sponsorship, he is single-minded about the relationship. “I have no doubt that in my lifetime there will be no betting at all,” he says.

Calls for the regulation of gambling marketing in the UK are hotting up. Late last year, Sky began limiting the number of betting ads it broadcasts, while a voluntary ban on pre-watershed betting ads during live sport is set to begin in July. Ian Angus, program director for the Gambling Commission, told The Drum that the regulator “shares concerns that gambling advertising and marketing, including sponsorship, could lead to gambling-related harm for children and other vulnerable people, but the current evidence is not clear on this matter”.

While clubs remain quiet about their role promoting betting and its associated harms, as football matures and grows, gambling in the sport may already be in extra time.

This feature first appeared in The Drum magazine's June issue. For our Future of Sport issue, we talk to Wieden+Kennedy, the FA and Visa about how brands are elevating sporting heroines ahead of the World Cup. We meet Formula E racing teams, fitness brands betting on startups and NFL veterans reinventing themselves as media moguls. Get your copy here.

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