The world of football is bracing itself for what could be a major financial blow, courtesy of a ban on gambling sponsorship of club shirts. Nothing is set in stone yet, but the government will soon be overhauling the laws governing casinos and bookies in the UK, and the option to have their logos on kits is reportedly on the chopping block, as various gambling industry sources see it as highly likely. The good news is this shouldn’t affect Welsh clubs too much directly, although there’s no telling what the knock-on, industry-wide repercussions of such a dramatic shift could be.
Gambling sponsorship in football has long been a hot potato issue, with passionate arguments being made on both sides. The anti-sponsorship crowd includes prominent politicians like former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, and campaigners like Matt Zarb-Cousin, director of pressure group Clean Up Gambling. Zarb-Cousin has summed up many people’s sentiments by describing players as “walking billboards for gambling companies”, and voicing concern about children’s exposure to betting site logos.
On the other side of the debate are those who think the whole issue has been overblown – they cite statistics suggesting problem gambling has remained at low rates throughout recent history, and warn that draconian measures could irreparably damage football. The libertarian journalist and researcher Christopher Snowdon has described any potential ban as “gratuitously sadistic”, saying that while Premiership teams have their pick of sponsors, a “ban would create a ripple effect and reduce revenues from top to bottom. Lower league clubs will already be hanging by a thread after a year of playing to empty terraces.”
However you look at the situation, the fact is betting sites pump a lot of cash into football. Eight Premier League clubs feature gambling companies on their shirts, while the English Football League has Sky Bet as its principal sponsor, with numerous clubs in the Championship and Leagues One and Two reaping financial rewards from shirt sponsors. According to a statement last year by the EFL, these lower divisions get around £40 million a season, which has been a lifeline during the dark days of coronavirus restrictions and zero ticket sales.
Can we expect a profound impact on Welsh clubs?
Welsh clubs shouldn’t immediately feel the effect of a ban on shirt sponsorship, for the simple reason that they’ve already largely severed such partnerships. Swansea City, for example, has already moved away from betting sponsorship. Last year, there was much fanfare when the club announced that Swansea University would be its new shirt sponsor, following four consecutive seasons of betting site logos on players’ chests. This came in the wake of a report by a House of Commons Select Committee on gambling harm, which proposed “there should be no gambling advertising in or near any sports grounds or sports venues.”
The move was proudly proclaimed by Rebecca Edwards-Symmons, Swansea’s head of commercial, as “the perfect partnership that encapsulates our club and our city.” It was also hailed by charity The Big Step as a decisive move against the “normalisation of gambling within football.”
Last year also saw Newport County relinquish betting site sponsorship of its kit. Over the past few seasons the club has enjoyed lucrative deals with gambling firms Interbet and Paddy Power, but has since made the much-admired decision to crowdfund a charity sponsor instead. Fans raised over £40,000 to cover the cost of having the Alzheimer’s Society Cymru logo on the front of the Newport shirt, which is about as uncontroversially wholesome as a partnership can get. The fact that the campaign also raised fresh awareness of two other charities that were in contention – anti-bullying organisation Kidscape, and type 1 diabetes charity JDRF – only added to the air of goodwill around the whole enterprise.
Then, of course, there’s Cardiff City, which hasn’t had a betting site emblazoned on its kit since the Sbobet days a decade ago. Not the kit they use in competitive play, anyway – the Bluebirds did recently take on 888 Sport as their first ever training wear sponsors. So, while fans won’t actually see it on match days, the well-known bookmaker’s branding is now associated in a low-level way with the club. Cardiff City’s CEO Ken Choo greeted the deal by saying he was “thrilled that we have entered into a partnership with a world-recognised brand like 888 Sport.”
So, while Welsh football has been largely ahead of the curve when it comes to securing non-gambling related sponsorship, Cardiff’s 888 deal means some revenue is at risk if the government does lay down the law. And, of course, Cardiff, Swansea and Newport all play in the English Football League, with its aforementioned Sky Bet title sponsorship, meaning they’re all indirectly connected with the gambling world anyway.
How popular is the legislation elsewhere?
There has been pushback against proposed tougher legislation, with an EFL statement emphasising that the league and Sky Bet “work together to promote responsible gambling, with players from all three divisions wearing sleeve badges to encourage supporters to consider how they gamble.”
Neil Banbury – a senior figure at the Kindred group which controls brands like Unibet and 32Red – has echoed this sentiment, stating his belief that shirt sponsorship plays an important role in actively promoting responsible gambling. He’s also argued that changes in regulations should instead focus on ensuring that companies which sponsor kits have either a sizeable customer base in the UK, or are seriously attempting to create such a customer base. “Certainly if you look at the Premier League, the vast majority of the brands from the gambling industry that are on shirt fronts have no interest in UK customers,” he recently said, “and perhaps that’s an area where there could be some moderation.”
Anti-gambling sponsorship campaigners would likely see Banbury’s statement as an example of a betting site bigwig deflecting the issue. Ultimately, though, it remains to be seen whether there will be new regulations, whether there will be a blanket ban or a more nuanced approach, and what the overall repercussions will be for football both in Wales and beyond. Sources are reportedly saying that Boris Johnson and other senior figures are resolutely determined to “press ahead with reform”. From the Premier League right down to the smallest clubs across England and Wales, everyone will feel the change.