Scott Longley – A short history of betting shirt sponsorship in football (part 1)

Scott Longley details to SBC readers the industry’s first steps in football sponsorship and marketing, in what is now a multi-million £/€/$ discipline for all betting operators.

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We start (perhaps improbably) with Fulham FC in the first years of the new century when in its second season in the Premier League the club signed a deal with Betfair that saw a betting company’s name emblazoned across the front of football shirt for the first time.

It’s a deal which would have a greater significance than anyone could have guessed at the time. Following on from Fulham’s brief one-year engagement with Pizza Hut, the betting exchange jumped on board for the 2002/03 season.

Betfair chief executive at the time Edward Wray said Fulham’s achievement at the turn of the century in coming from the lower divisions to compete with the Premier League’s biggest clubs “makes it a perfect fit with Betfair”.

“Both Fulham and Betfair have been prepared to throw down the gauntlet to more established organisations in the last two years, and in partnership with each other we believe we will be the names to watch in the future,” he ventured.

Such was the PR theory. In practice, however, the deal led to board level disagreements over how to measure the success of the marketing spend says Mark Davies, then managing director at Betfair.

“One of our board members didn’t like the fact that it was less scientific than, say, PPC,” he tells SBC News. “So he wasn’t keen on us doing it for the second year and the deal fell away. I was always keen to continue (with the deal) but his view held sway.”

Others, however, would prove to be far keener on what they believed was the exposure value of having a gambling brand name appear on the front of a football shirt.

The Manfred and Norbert show

Enter Manfred Bodner and Norbert Teufelberger from Bwin. Back in 2006, the company hit upon shirt sponsorship as the ideal way to promote the brand across Europe. First, they did a deal with AC Milan and this was followed a year later by the big one, the multi-year £14-a-year deal with Real Madrid that put Bwin on the map. Far from the issues of impossible-to-measure CPAs that worried Betfair, Bodner and Teufelberger eyed up football shirt sponsorship as dotcom marketing by the back door.

The deal seemed to make little sense commercially. That £14m was seen as being excessive at the time, and indeed might be seen as being the point at which shirt sponsorship inflation generally took hold.

But tactically the deal was astute. In various skirmishes with the authorities in Germany and France, Bwin (and others including 888) found that the publicity gained by using shirt sponsorship as a way to snub their noses at restrictive gambling regimes was a key aid in brand recognition.

The strategy was clear. Get the European-wide brand recognition via football and the dotcom revenues would flow even as it irked the authorities.

“I think Bwin certainly established the credibility of betting brands with such Tier 1 shirt-sponsorship and led the way for many more such brands to follow, albeit typically with lower-profile English and other European teams,” says Lee Richardson, founder and chief executive at Gaming Economics.

Back in the world of English football a slow trickle of gambling-related shirt sponsorships followed the path forged by Betfair. 888.com became the sponsor at Middlesbrough for the 2004/05 season, a position it held for three years; Blackburn (then in the Premier League) had Bet24 for 2006/07 season; in the same season Aston Villa had 32Red; Sunderland had Irish bookie Boylesports on its shirt for the 2007-08 season; and Mansion truly broke the bank when it paid Bwin-sized sums to become the shirt sponsor at Tottenham Hotspur for the 2008/09 season in a four-year deal worth £14m per season.

Yet, it was the more modest deal that occurred in the middle of that season that truly can be seen as a signpost for the future. When then little-known SBObet took over the shirt sponsorship at West Ham in the December 2008 from the failed holiday firm XL Holidays, it wasn’t the sum involved that was significant.

Instead, it was the geographical targets markets for the sponsorship deal that holds the key to the significance of the deal. The Asian bookies had arrived. The trickle of gambling industry involvement in football sponsorship was set to become a flood.

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The Betting industry’s relationship with Football and its wider stakeholders will be discussed at the ‘Betting on Football 2018’ (#bofcon2018 – 20-23 March, Stamford Bridge, London) conference. Click on the below banner for more information…