This morning reports have surfaced that the UK Government is set to ban gambling sponsors on football shirts when it publishes a white paper this winter, following a review of the Gambling Act 2005 earlier this year.
The news, broken by David Coverdale of the Daily Mail, comes after growing pressure to challenge gambling’s foothold on football, and though it seems that front-of-shirt sponsors will be the sole target of the changes, it represents the most definitive sign yet that significant change is coming.
When it comes to football shirts, gambling sponsors dominate the front-of-shirt landscape with almost half of Premier League teams sponsored by gambling firms. Since the first gambling sponsor in 2002 (Fulham and Betfair) and the loosening of wider restrictions in 2005, gambling companies have capitalised in a big way, and in purely aesthetic terms there have been countless shirts that have been arguably damaged by the often clunky, tacky look of a gambling sponsor logo.
Today I want to address not so much the ins and outs of the upcoming changes, but rather what the alternatives could be for the many clubs who find themselves tied to a gambling company at present.
We’ll start with the most obvious, though perhaps most difficult, ‘solution’.
If the Government does indeed ban gambling sponsors, many clubs will be forced to embark on the daunting task of finding a new sponsor. Though the clouds are beginning to lift from the pandemic the challenge of finding a new shirt sponsor only seems to be growing.
The reality is many clubs have gambling sponsors because gambling companies tend to pay over the odds compared to their non-betting competitors. Whilst the ‘big six’ of the Premier League can effectively shop around and table offers from a variety of parties, the other 14 teams during any given season often seem like they’re passing a range of gambling sponsors between themselves in order to help balance the books.
I can’t offer any wisdom on this front, except to say that the rising value of shirt sponsorship deals across the board means that any sort of change will only get harder the longer it is left unchecked. The short term impact could be very painful, but any club should have been able to see this sort of thing coming for several years now.
Take on sleeve sponsor
One potentially streamlined solution can be found close to home in the form of sleeve sponsors. Though sleeve sponsorship deals command significantly lower amounts of cash compared to front of shirt deals, the existing relationships between clubs and companies could act as a springboard for brands to effectively ‘upgrade’ their deal, for the right price.
The most obvious wrinkle here is that some sleeve sponsors are of course, gambling firms, and if gambling sponsors are still allowed on the sleeves as part of the upcoming reforms it wouldn’t be a surprise to see most of the gambling companies migrating to the sleeves in an effort to maintain visibility in the market.
Still, for clubs like Leeds United who have a gambling front of shirt sponsor (SBOTOP) but a non-gambling sleeve sponsor (local boiler company, BOXT), a switch seems like a good solution even if just on a temporary basis.
Take on training kit sponsor
On a similar note, some clubs already have existing sponsorship deals for all their training wear which are independent of the deals for sponsorship of match kits.
Typically this is only the case for the bigger teams, with famous examples include insurance company Aon, who initially sponsored Manchester United shirts only to stay on as a training kit sponsor for several years, or Liverpool whose training and pre-match wear is sponsored by another insurance company, Axa.
Next up, there is the option which many fans have been clamouring for for various reasons, the sponsorless route.
Interestingly, this is an option which many clubs have already been exploring in a sense through the sale of youth of U18 kits. Teams like West Ham have offered sponsorless versions of their shirts in adult sizes for a number of years now (marketed as “U18” shirts) and the move has drawn praise from the wider community.
This simple alternative opens up possibilities for fans who simply prefer the shirt without the look of the sponsor, or even fans who would be comfortable wearing a shirt with a gambling sponsor on religious grounds.
Foundations or local businesses
Over recent years a number of clubs have taken the opportunity to highlight the work of their charitable foundations or partnered charities by replacing their usual front of shirt sponsor logo. This has been seen both in the league and also in European competitions, where clubs have been unable to wear gambling sponsors on the front of their shirts due to local rules (many clubs also go down the sponsorless route in this situation.
Similarly, as bizarre as it sounds when talking about ‘greedy’ football clubs, teams could take a leaf out of Huddersfield Town’s book and a range of local businesses through something like a raffle system
Ultimately this last category is a non-starter for most clubs because the revenue from a sponsorship deal is critical, but in the immediate aftermath of any changes it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some clubs go down this route out of necessity, as Huddersfield ended up doing.