‘All bets are off’: FA calls time on gambling sponsorship

Chris Beadle, director of London-based agency Zonal Sports, takes a look at The FA's recent decision not to renew its sponsorship deal with Ladbrokes, and the implications for soccer's relationship with gambling.

‘All bets are off’: FA calls time on gambling sponsorship

By Chris Beadle

Did we witness a watershed moment for soccer betting partnerships last week? The announcement that The Football Association (FA), English soccer’s governing body, will not be renewing with betting firm Ladbrokes, deciding against having a betting partner full stop, perhaps drew some collective gasps from sports betting marketers.

The FA is undergoing somewhat of a makeover of late, with its ‘For All’ campaign at the heart of a sustained attempt to build a stronger brand image and improve public perception. As part of this, the body's chief executive Martin Glenn and his team are taking a selective approach to who they partner with, and indeed from which sectors are deemed as appropriate for an organisation with their responsibilities.

The focus is on brands that provide not only cash, but also offer reciprocal benefits and services that can help The FA in many different areas of their new long-term strategy. A preference for brands committed to activating and helping spread the positive ‘For All’ message, companies engaged in driving participation and healthy living, and respected brands whose association can help improve an image that’s been a little bruised in recent years.

The FA was talking about ditching betting way before the recent Joey Barton controversies, but scrutiny on the topic intensified significantly in the aftermath. Barton’s rants were thought provoking for many, but reportedly had no bearing on the FA’s decision to turn its back on gambling companies.

So, was The FA’s decision made because the betting sector only delivers cash and none of the other desirable aspirations for partnerships under the new strategy? Alcohol partnerships will remain and arguably deliver little more than cash and booze, and The FA is understood to be out to tender for a new beer partner right now.

Was this a statement that betting partnerships in soccer are inappropriate? The substantial cash received from a betting sponsorship fee could have been used by The FA for good, helping achieve against a whole host of ambitious and worthwhile objectives, so you’d be inclined to believe the decision is that latter.

Premier League betting shirt partnerships: Are the big bucks worth it?

Betting is everywhere in UK soccer. Half the 20 Premier League clubs had betting companies as shirt sponsors last season, with that number seemingly on the rise. According to Sport Sponsorship Insider, the sector generated combined sponsorship revenues of around UK£482m in 2016/17. Any changes to regulations would have a huge impact.

Betting is a traditional and intrinsic part of watching and going to the footy. The betting and soccer partnership fit is obvious, it just makes sense, it works, it delivers great results for the brands and big bucks for the clubs. For Asian betting brands, PL shirt sponsorship is a smart way around strict betting advertising laws in countries such as China.

That said, there are elements of the against argument for betting shirt sponsors that stack up.

The smaller Premier League clubs receive around UK£2 million-UK£3 million a year from a betting shirt sponsor. When you compare that number to the money clubs receive from TV, tickets, merchandise etc, it’s a small piece of the pie.

It’s against the law for betting logos to be present on junior replica kits. Kids want the shirts to look exactly as worn by their idols, young Stoke City fans want a Xherdan Shaqiri shirt with Bet365 on the front, but they can’t have it. Many adults want the kid’s version with no betting sponsor. They also can’t have it. As a professional soccer team, your team jersey is your brand ID, so the sponsor you choose to display has a bearing on your club's international perception.

So, it’s understandable why the question gets asked: ‘Why don’t the clubs take a smaller shirt sponsorship fee and go for a non-betting brand? You’d probably sell more replica kits and have a stronger brand image, right?’

After last week’s announcement, will we see clubs keeping their official betting partners, but choosing against having them on the front of shirt? It’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Will The FA be initiating a future ban of betting advertising and sponsorship around soccer? I’d bet against it.

Chris Beadle is the director of London-based agency Zonal Sports and the former head of partnerships at Premier League soccer side West Ham United. Follow him on LinkedIn or email him at chris@zonalsports.com.