Essential preparation for stakeholders: The impacts of a gambling shirt ban

With talks escalating of a ban on sports betting and gambling firms from Premier League football shirts, operators are becoming increasingly aware of the repercussions that look to follow the current 2005 Gambling Act review.

As speculation shifts to inevitability, experts claim that stakeholders should be prepared for a ‘probable change’ when it comes to gambling sponsorships, whilst it has been reported that pitchside and television advertising is also under consideration.

Speaking to SBC Leaders, Dean Akinjobi, CEO of Football Media, and Imogen Moss, a Solicitor and gambling regulation expert at Poppleston Allen, shared their views on the implications surrounding the upcoming changes of the future of these companies.

Beginning discussions, Akinjobi remarked that betting businesses should have been preparing for this scenario ‘years ago’, as part of their sponsorship contingency plans.

He argued that regardless of the timing of the impending judgment, prudent actions should be taking place within gambling companies and football clubs, with such a ‘key decision on horizon’ that could have an impact on two major industries.

For a survival of business, Akinjobi stated: “Stakeholders within football clubs should be exploring other category sponsorship opportunities, whilst also working with existing gambling sponsors on partnership strategies that will enable them to reach audiences in new and emerging markets, using marketing and advertising assets outside of the UK.”

Given that many clubs will be looking to fill the financial void left by these sponsorship deals, and taking into account the growing number of teams releasing Fan Tokens on cryptocurrency sites, this may produce a possible influx of financial and crypto trading sponsors – many of which are not subject to regulation.

Akinjobi sees crypto as one of the biggest opportunities for football due to a global adoption which, along with the growth of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT’s), creates a ‘very strong stable environment’ for these companies to expand their marketing into club sponsorships, to increase and develop market share.

Additionally, he highlighted ‘travel and tourism’ as a potential key territory, adding: “Now that we are seeing world travel open up post-COVID, there are millions of people around the world, often with excess cash who are desperate to travel abroad due to 18 months of global travel restrictions. This creates the perfect target market for the travel and tourism industry to use global football shirt sponsorships as a compelling marketing channel at this moment in time.”

Moss, however, stated that any of these non–gambling company sponsors would need to be compliant with any relevant codes of practice issued by the ASA and comply with their own industry advertising codes where relevant, which may not be as strict as those for the gambling industry.

She underlined the issue that a ban on gambling-shirt sponsorships will not be the solution to reducing the exposure of younger people from such advertising, claiming that this will always be a ‘work in progress’.

This extends to a ‘wider sphere’ outside of just football shirt sponsors, and there are different approaches needed by different areas of the gambling industry, both online and land-based.

She added: “It’s important to note that there are already strict rules regarding advertising and marketing that apply to gambling business that include making sure that advertisements and marketing material are not of particular appeal to children or young people, such as being associated with youth culture particularly if the advert/marketing is freely accessible.

“So, imagery using certain colours and cartoons are not permitted for example, and this also applies to sponsorships. Responsible gambling groups have raised concerns regarding under 18’s exposure to ambient gambling via general advertising and marketing campaigns and how this is controlled.”

In March 2021, English Football League (EFL) Chairman, Rick Parry, argued against a blanket ban on gambling sponsorships. Given the difficult year that sports had in 2020/21, concerns have arisen regarding damages to clubs following the potential ban, with an estimated £1.6 billion of revenue already lost due to COVID.

Akinjobi explained that the English Football League’s deal with Sky Bet is estimated to be worth £40 million per year, which is why we can understand chairman Rick Parry’s concerns.

However, with the potential impending ruling having been on the horizon for a long time, he suggests that clubs and governing bodies should have contingency plans in place around gambling sponsorships.

“This includes exploring other sponsorship categories, through to working on strategies with existing betting sponsors on how they can help them to reach audiences using clubs channels that are targeted to emerging betting markets, such as Africa, India, LatAm and the US.

“These types of new commercial betting deals would result in a scaled down version of current global betting sponsorship revenue, due to potential regulations in the UK, but would also enable clubs to retain relationships and revenues from long term betting partners in some way or form going forward.”

With this in mind, the Gambling Act 2005 Terms of Reference and Call for Evidence – published on 8 December 2020 – highlights that the government is “seeking evidence on the positive and negative outcomes” of the relationship between sports and gambling “to make sure we can strike an appropriate balance in developing policy”.

Moss remains optimistic that a balanced approach can be achieved, commenting: “There are many types of Gambling advertising and a blanket approach by the Government would seem out of balance with the issues that they have highlighted, also any decisions made would need to have their foundations in robust evidence.”

This gives hope of a maintained CSR relationship with football clubs irrespective of sponsorship or advertising, and Akinjobi explained that ‘If betting companies are genuinely serious about CSR, and the causes that their business and or employees are passionate about supporting, then CSR should be looked at in isolation rather than as part of a wider commercial sponsorship or advertising deal’.

In giving examples of where betting companies can and are helping local and international communities, the CEO explained that from homelessness and mental health, to grass roots and education are ways in which these company’s can be implemented whilst avoiding being very brand or advertising-focused.

“The focus has been around supporting these causes in ways that make a difference, first and foremost, be that financially or operationally, which is where the real value of CSR is, as the actual causes themselves, when individually observed, can have a major impact regardless of a sponsorship or advertising relationship,” he remarked.

Moss agreed that this would ultimately depend on what the government decides, which may only be limited to direct sponsorship and potential marketing campaigns. She claimed: “There are large gambling groups that provide help to fund grassroots football for example, which is of huge importance to the game.

“There has been commentary about the prospect of introducing a gambling levy in order to fund grassroots football, but this has been met with a lot of criticism, with some suggesting this would make the links between gambling and football too close.

“Others argue that gambling companies already provide significant revenue to the game and a mandatory levy would be a tax on the gambling industry.”

One area of the review less touched upon is match day betting, and the effects that the ban will have on betting within the ground. Akinjobi expects that this will experience a ‘major change’, and claims betting companies will have to become more creative and smarter about how they reach customers in and around grounds.

He suggested that this can be done in a number of ways: “Using technology and digital advertising, such as in-App location based messaging and digital advertising across football fans and news sites, targeting audiences within specific locations, using stadium postcodes as a target audience advertising radius.”

This article was originally published in Issue 18 of SBC Leaders Magazine

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