As the UK government puts betting advertising under the microscope, the English Football League has leaped to the defence of the bookies, highlighting the importance of their sponsorships to clubs in the wake of ongoing financial troubles. Ged Colleypriest, founder of Underdog Sports Marketing, examines if football can cope with having the punting pound removed from its economy.
This can’t be in doubt any longer. The question mark is actually over how big the problem might be. Research commissioned by GambleAware earlier this year suggested that 1.4 million people were problem gamblers. Some experts were quick to query the number, but there is more than enough evidence to show that there is significant concern. With football’s incredibly close relationship with gambling, how might the industry be able to navigate the double hit of Covid-19 and tightening gambling restrictions?
Self-regulation isn’t enough
Much has been spoken about the ‘responsible gambling’ messaging that has become more prominent since scrutiny was stepped up. SkyBet, which sponsors the EFL for example, displays messages such as ‘Set a Deposit Limit’ on the sleeve badges of players in its leagues. This is, of course, a positive step, but can it really work? One need only look at Formula 1 for a word of warning. Football’s relationship with the bookies is akin to that of F1 and tobacco. While F1 banned smoking sponsor’s logos in 2006, the presence of big tobacco firms lingers like the smell of cigarettes on a favourite smoking jacket.
Firms like Phillip Morris replaces the Marlboro logo on the Ferraris they sponsor with slogans such as ‘Mission Winnow’. McClaren and British American Tobacco have a similar arrangement with ‘Building a Better Tomorrow’. This being their movement to create a smoke-free world, or, to put it plainly, to sell vaping products. This circumvents the F1 ban because it is not a smoked product, it still however, keeps the company at the front of mind. Of course, the tobacco firms still make huge profits through traditional products.
If football allows gambling to stay by pedalling its ‘gamble responsibly’ mottos, it is in danger of making the same mistake.
Now is the time
“Never waste a good crisis” or words to that effect have been attributed to Winston Churchill. Well, it’s safe to say that football, specifically many of the EFL clubs, have been trying to navigate a financial crisis for some time. Bailout talks remain complicated but are in a better position than they were a month ago.
Throughout these talks, unsurprisingly, the EFL has been quick to defend the financial support that bookmakers bring. Describing their backing ‘as important now as it’s ever been.’ This is not in doubt. Even if there is a bail-out, the £40m a season that bookies generate for the league and clubs is going to be required to weather the storm. But football is in need of complete reform. For all the talk of sustainability, as the Saving the Beautiful Game manifesto points out, too many clubs and owners have been guilty of spending hard and gambling (for want of a better word) on short term success to get the pot of gold that the Premier League brings. There is a huge danger that if the game doesn’t cease this opportunity to sever its ties with bookmaking firms, then it never will.
Just because bookmaking money is there, doesn’t mean it’s the only option. Clubs like Luton Town have a policy of not working with gambling firms because of the potential harm that could cause their fans.
A phased approach
The plight of Bury, Wigan, Macclesfield and numerous others have been heartbreaking for their fans. Pulling the rug from the carpet and banning betting sponsorship immediately would increase the risk of this happening to more teams. But a phased approach that allows a period of grace for clubs and governing bodies to get their house in order, is something that could work. Premier League clubs have the least reliance on bookmakers with the vast majority of their income coming from broadcast rights. Plus, it commands the most viewers, so provides bookie sponsors with the most exposure. Therefore, starting with the top-flight would be the most logical approach. The EFL could follow but be allowed more time in order to secure sponsors from other sectors.
Over-reliance on one sector
Putting aside the moral issue, something else Covid-19 has demonstrated is the reliance on bookmaking as a category. There are more bookies than you can even imagine and nearly all of them are prepared to buy sponsorships from clubs. Many clubs are happy to take the bookie money, because it’s easier than looking outside the category. Which is understandable when you have a sales target over your head.
But what it doesn’t do is future-proof your club as a business. If you continue to do the same style of sponsorship, largely ‘badging exercises’, just alternating which bookmaker is on your shirt, you leave yourself massively exposed when that sector dries up or is taken away. There aren’t many categories that are prepared to hand over money as easily as the bookies, so it’s going to be a much harder fix.
The rays of hope
But this is where the good news comes in. There are some wonderful examples out there of small football teams showing outstanding creative thinking to attract sponsors that are in theory out of their league. Take Stevenage, for example. Its sponsorship with Burger King has attracted a huge amount of adulation. The team was the lowest ranked team in FIFA 20, so the club and sponsor launched the ‘Stevenage Challenge’ encouraging gamers to play as ‘The Boro’. The results were outstanding as the club became the most chosen team in ‘Career Mode’ resulting in loads of exposure and genuine engagement for Burger King.
Likewise, Forest Green Rovers is hardly a household name in world football. But its profile is constantly rising because of the story it tells off the pitch. The team became the world’s first vegan club in 2015 and the first to be certified carbon neutral in 2018. So, while it may still be in the bottom tier of the EFL, the team attracted investment from Arsenal star Hector Bellerin and secured a naming rights deal with Innocent.
These aren’t easy fixes, but more inspiration for how smaller teams can and must move away from the traditional model of sponsorship, that largely involves placing a brand’s logo (usually a bookie’s) on a shirt and hoping for the best.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport review is expected to be revealed in early 2021 and changes in regulation could be in place for the 2021/2022 season. So clubs and governing bodies don’t have long to wait or to plan for the future. The changes could have a seismic impact on the sport for fans, clubs and financial directors alike. All of which means it’s essential that clubs start planning for a future that is different from what we’ve known since regulations were relaxed in 2007. But as the likes of Luton, Forest Green, Stevenage and others have shown, there is a life outside of bookmaking sponsorship but it requires a different way of thinking.
Ged Colleypriest is founder of Underdog Sports Marketing.