Premier League clubs increasingly look to online betting firms for sponsorship as other sources of revenue dry up
You do not have to look far for evidence that the always close relationship between football and gambling has become even cosier over recent years. You can hear it in Ray Winstone assailing the senses with in-play odds during live matches, see it in the increasing number of online bookmaker brands emblazoned on shirts and, now, the Football League's £15m title sponsorship deal with Sky Bet. The increasing reliance of many clubs, particularly those in the lower divisions, on bookmakers for sponsorship income could theoretically raise ethical and welfare issues.
Some wonder whether it could have an effect on the perception of the game's integrity and others whether it could encourage children to gamble. Many more see no harm in an occasional punt and welcome the convenience of betting in play via a smartphone or tablet in the stadium or in front of the television. It is the availability of these casual betting opportunities, on the score or the next scorer or the number of corners, that is driving a surge in revenues at online bookmakers. And football is the backbone of that growth.
Sky Bet, which stepped in to sponsor the Football League in its 125th anniversary year after talks with B&Q broke down at the last, has increased its revenue 38% year on year to £155m. While traditional bookmakers face continuing challenges, digital offerings are going from strength to strength. Almost every Premier League team has, or has recently had, a high-profile tie-up with a major bookmaker.
The Football Association crossed a Rubicon when it signed a deal to make William Hill the "official betting partner" of the England team and the FA Cup last year. Analysis of the 92 Premier League and Football League clubs reveals that 19 different betting firms have official partnerships with clubs, a number only liable to rise as options become more scarce.
The shirt sponsorship market has become stratified. Steve Martin, chief executive of M&C Saatchi Sport, says: "The cream is rising to the top and the rest just isn't there." So teams consistently competing at the business end of the Champions League and marketing themselves as global brands, which in England effectively means the top four, plus Liverpool (thanks to their heritage), have sponsorship income that continues to rise. Outside that gilded elite, it is becoming ever harder.
For a mid-table Premier League club such as Aston Villa or Newcastle United, the income is more like £3m to £4m a year. Even Tottenham Hotspur have struggled without a regular berth in the Champions League. "The market is dictating itself," says Martin. "The big brands who were well-known household names, a lot of them have grown and don't need the awareness – Orange, O2, airlines, banks. Those brands have become famous over so many years that now they see shirt sponsorship as wallpaper."
The Football League sponsorship has created the intriguing situation whereby not only are BSkyB bankrolling the competition through broadcasting rights but it sponsors it as well. There is the danger that it leaves the League overexposed to a single company but it did not have too much choice. "It's a big call by them because the League also want to be a family-friendly brand," says Martin. "It will be interesting to see how that plays out."
The decision six years ago to ensure that bookmakers' logos did not appear on replica shirts aimed at children was a tacit admission of a desire not to promote gambling to kids. The influx of money from bookmakers comes against a backdrop of governing bodies investing in education programmes to try to head off the danger of well-paid, and sometimes bored, players being sucked into a damaging gambling culture, and match-fixing is still a problem in some parts of the world. But Paul Samuels, head of global partnerships at the O2 owner, AEG Europe, who has been responsible for evaluating the value of several major sponsorship deals on behalf of brands and clubs, says it remains a perfectly legitimate revenue stream. "If you look at smoking, the government passed a law that said cigarettes couldn't be advertised on a sports field," he says. "That's fine but if a payday loan company or a bookmaker is allowed to advertise on billboards or in newspapers, then clubs are entitled to go after it. They need the revenue."
The need to drive sponsorship and commercial revenue is being exacerbated by financial fair play rules in all their forms. From Uefa's version to the Premier League's new cost controls and the Football League's variants, all encourage clubs to drive commercial income to increase their competitiveness. It may be driven by new technology but this relationship is far from a new one. It was only in 1981 that income from broadcasting rights first outstripped betting income, albeit in the form of the football pools rather than fixed-odds bets. And it has long been controversial: in 1915 a huge match-fixing scandal gripped English football that resulted in players being jailed after a game between Manchester United and Liverpool was rigged.
What has changed, though, is the money involved and that for many clubs online bookmakers are becoming one of the few options that can provide sponsorship. When that happens, the odds will soon become heavily stacked in favour of the bookies.
Additional reporting by Chris McHugh