Three years ago, the Football Association indicated that it wanted to distance itself from the gambling industry by ending its £4million-a-year sponsorship from Ladbrokes, who are owned by GVC Holdings. It’s little wonder then that The FA are receiving heavy criticism over the sale of FA Cup rights to BET365 via its deal with sports rights agency IMG, a deal which is due to run until 2024.
The controversial deal allows IMG to sell live footage from FA Cup matches to bookmakers and betting companies. This resulted in most of last weekend’s 32 ties being broadcast on Bet365, while only two were on free-to-air TV. However, to watch the action on Bet365’s site, fans had to place a bet before kick-off or open an account with a £5 deposit. Betting odds accompanied the live footage, which was clearly designed to tempt viewers to place a bet.
With gambling addiction repeatedly being blamed for fuelling mental health problems, the almost universal criticism of The FA is compounded by the fact that the kick-off times for all last weekend’s Cup matches were delayed by one symbolic minute to publicise a mental health campaign backed by Prince William, who is The FA’s President. This has led the Prime Minister Boris Johnson to call for The FA to ‘reconsider its deal with Bet365’ and Health Secretary Matt Hancock to comment ‘it is hugely disappointing to see The FA supporting something that is a major cause of both mental health and addiction.’
My own antipathy towards the rise of betting brands sponsorship in football is well known and I pride myself on the fact that all of the major sponsorships I was personally involved in negotiating during my 23 years in professional football – whether that was for Charlton Athletic in my two spells at the Club or for The Football League (now known as The EFL) or for Swindon Town – were with companies whose products, services and brand values were ones that I was personally happy to promote to supporters of my Club, or in the case of The EFL, to supporters of all 72 Clubs.
However, the world-wide popularity of professional football has steadily seen the rise in national and international gambling companies and online casinos pumping millions of pounds into the game. In fact, half of the clubs in the Premier League and 17 out of 24 clubs in the EFL Championship feature a betting brand as a shirt sponsor this season.
It’s not hard then to understand how this almost blanket coverage of football by betting brands has happened, as the gambling industry clearly adopted a proactive strategy of securing shirt sponsorships which has almost made redundant the ‘old fashioned’ way of attracting a compatible shirt sponsor that I referred to earlier. Another consequence of aligning themselves with betting brands has been that Clubs have effectively driven a wedge between themselves and their own Community Trusts.
Tragically, but in my opinion somewhat predictably, this sponsorship saturation has also coincided with a rise in the numbers of people affected by gambling addiction and this has led to a widely-held belief that much tighter restrictions should be placed on the advertising and promotion of online betting companies.
Sadly, and as I alluded to earlier; as well as detracting from Prince William’s hugely important campaign, deals such as the one between The FA and Bet365 also fly in the face of the fantastic work undertaken by Clubs’ Community Trusts throughout The Premier League and The EFL in addressing mental health issues, such as the award-winning Early Help and Prevention programme operated by the Charlton Athletic Community Trust (CACT).
I very much hope that The FA reconsiders their agreement via IMG with Bet365 and, as Gary Lineker demanded on his Twitter page, they do indeed ‘sort it’. However, my fear is that, at a time when the perilous finances of football clubs has been graphically highlighted by the sad demise of Bury FC and the last minute rescue of Bolton Wanderers FC and with so many Clubs and indeed Leagues now sponsored by betting companies, the negative impact financially on football and in particular the Clubs themselves if the gambling industry pulled out of sponsorship overnight, would be dramatic.
Ideally I’d like to see gambling sponsorships go the way of tobacco and alcohol, both of which were major sponsors of sport, but realistically because of the potential catastrophic impact that banning gambling sponsorship would have on the finances of football clubs, the solution could be for other betting organisations to follow the lead shown by GVC Holdings, who apart from Ladbrokes also own Coral and BETDAQ. In July 2019 BETDAQ announced that it had donated its final year of its shirt sponsorships with Sunderland AFC and Charlton Athletic FC to the charity ‘Children with Cancer UK’, it was an initiative that I was extremely pleased to applaud.
This positive move by GVC Holdings has provided the opportunity for the ‘Children with Cancer UK’ charity to gain much needed exposure whilst at the same time giving ample notice to Sunderland and Charlton to find new corporate partners for the start of the 2020/2021 season.
If such an approach was taken more widely, together with the adoption of a more unified strategy to tackle the issue of gambling related harm; then perhaps, in the long run, there will be more winners than losers from football’s current obsession with the gambling industry.