Scott Longley details industry charity GambleAware’s bizarre criticism of Sky Bet’s English Football League (EFL) sponsorship extension, in which the online betting firm has placed consumer responsibility and safety at the heart of its marketing initiatives.
Sky Bet might be forgiven a measure of bemusement after the company found itself under attack from the problem gambling charity Gamble Aware following the announcement of an extension to its current sponsorship of the English Football League (EFL).
After all, Sky Bet and the EFL appeared to go out of its way to foreground a responsible gambling message as part of the new arrangement. The press release from the Football League said that “responsible gambling messaging” was at the heart of the five-year partnership.
In particular, the ‘when the fun stops, stop’ message will now feature prominently across online, print, radio and TV and will feature on sleeve patches worn by the players.
A strange moment, then, for GambleAware chief executive Marc Etches to be pronouncing the deal represented a “tipping point.”
Certainly, the new agreement deepens the relationship between the league and Sky Bet. The company now becomes the official betting partner for the EFL’s iFollow streaming service (itself launched earlier this year) with the right to stream 16-midweek matches on a watch-and-bet basis.
It also has the right to stream exclusive content from the grounds on matchday, will be able to display branding at all football league grounds and adds the sponsorship of golden boot and golden gloves awards to its existing deal for the player and manager of the month baubles.
Admittedly, the timing of the announcement might have been better. The day before, GambleAware had responded to a survey from BBC Sport which had suggested that more fans in the 18-24 age group had bet on the sport (44%) than played in a team (37%).
The charity warned in its response to gambling being “normalised” for young people, a theme it picked up on in its criticism of the EFL/Sky Bet deal.
Timing is all, perhaps, and certainly, the news of the extension comes when there are heightened sensitivities with regard to the sponsorship and advertising around football on the part of the gambling industry.
Notably, the recent triennial review from the UK government saw plans put forward for a major two-year responsible gambling advertising campaign to be launched with the cooperation of GambleAware that will have a budget of between £5 and £7m.
Alongside print and online, the effort will involve responsible gambling adverts being placed alongside adverts for gambling services in ad breaks around live sport.
In foregrounding its own responsible gambling measures, Sky Bet is pre-empting this effort but there is more than a hint from GambleAware comment that it feels it has been sidelined by this high-profile campaign.
While its response said it welcomed the “commitment to do more to promote safer gambling”, it suggested the messaging needed to be “more explicit about the risk involved.”
Giving a nod to the new awareness campaign, it then said it would be writing to the EFL “to ask that any new messaging is consistent with a public health approach.”
If the football authorities are at all confused at this point, they are not the only ones. The ‘when the fun stops, stop’ messaging specifically cited in the EFL press release is the agreed-upon standard industry messaging and by placing it on player shirt sleeves the body is going further than those clubs which have gambling companies as their own shirt sponsors.
Moreover, Sky Bet is, in the parlance, one of the ‘good guys’. The Leeds-based firm’s record when it comes to responsible gambling is – as far as we know – spotless and its focus on the mass market means it has to date avoided the AML and related bear traps that have ensnared a number of its competitors.
Richard Flint, chief executive at Sky Betting and Gaming, said in his comments on the EFL deal he believed the additional focus the two organisations were placing on responsible gambling showed that “well-run betting operators can play an active part” in raising problem gambling awareness.
“By using our sponsorship and marketing capabilities to highlight how customers can gamble safely we hope to ensure that nothing gets in the way of people’s enjoyment of the sport, definitely not betting,” he added.
The announcement of this deal extension has clearly run slap bang into the ongoing wider debate about the commercial relationships between gambling and sport. The usual anti-gambling suspects duly lined up to decry this deal as much as they would criticise any further examples of gambling advertising and sponsorships.
In a sense, the storm in a teacup brewed up in this instance should be viewed as a backhanded compliment to the success of Sky Bet in leveraging both its brand and its association with English football. But it is doubtful that this is any kind of tipping point, and in its efforts to foreground the responsible gambling aspect, it might even come to be seen as something of a pioneer.
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