Image Credit: Nathan Rogers/Unsplash

It’s hard to miss the presence of betting sponsorship in football. From brand names emblazoned on pitch-side panels to entire stadiums named after bookmakers. Perhaps most notorious of all is the lucrative shirt sponsor deal. Some of the most famous players in the world wear prominent betting logos on their shirts.

Currently, nine clubs in the Premier League, which kicked off on September 12th, feature betting firms as shirt sponsors. Despite calls from MPs and charities to drop their associations with gambling firms, some clubs have even signed new deals with betting firms. Last month Fulham FC partnered with BetVictor, ending its previous two-year deal with rival operator Dafabet. Leicester City also recently signed a deal with Cyprus-based betting firm, Parimatch.

In recent years, this practice has come under fire, over concerns for those who might be vulnerable to gambling harms. In particular, campaigners are concerned that such prominent advertising normalizes gambling for children and puts addicts at risk of relapse. With these concerns in mind, some question why betting sponsorship should be allowed in football at all?

For most clubs, it comes down to a matter of finances. Wealthy sports betting operators are able to offer clubs lucrative deals that are hard to pass up, especially when such good sponsorship opportunities are not always available elsewhere. The revenue generated from advertising helps to finance games and pay players. Without this revenue, clubs would be forced to operate on tight margins and run the risk of going bankrupt.

However, the tide is turning on betting sponsors. As pressure from MPs grows, some clubs have dropped their sponsors. Swansea City is one such club, and has dropped its deal with Yobet in favor of sponsorship from Swansea University. Because of this, the club is now able to sell replica team shirts to adults and children that are identical, without featuring any reference to gambling.

There is evidence that not all fans want to wear shirts featuring betting sponsors. In August, Stoke City reported that it had had to order a new batch of replica shirts not featuring the club’s sponsorship logo, after stock was sold out in just hours. These shirts were produced as part of a small batch, aimed at fans that want to support the club but do not support gambling on religious grounds. However, demand clearly showed that more fans than expected would prefer to wear the Stoke City shirt without the bet365 logo.

On the other side of the argument, the Betting and Gaming Council, an industry body that represents the UK’s casinos, online operators and betting shops, has argued in favor of sponsorship from betting firms. It says that these deals provide essential funding for clubs, and that it is already working to ensure that fewer young people are exposed to gambling ads whilst watching football on TV.

In August of 2019, the BGC introduced the ‘whistle to whistle’ ban, which prevents gambling ads from being aired during live televised sports. The ban applies before the watershed, from five minutes before a sports event begins, until five minutes after it has ended. Over a year later, and the BGC has hailed its initiative a success. According to figures collected by Enders Analysis, the ban has had a strong impact already, reducing the number of gambling ads on TV seen by children by 97%.

The Gambling Commission, which regulates the UK’s gambling industry, has agreed that the presence of betting sponsorship in sports should be up for debate. The government is due to review the 2005 Gambling Act shortly, which could mean a major upheaval for the industry.

The gambling act has remained largely unchanged since former Prime Minister Tony Blair dramatically liberalized Britain’s gambling legislation. Since then, betting has boomed, particularly with the growth of the online sector. A new gambling act could see an end to some industry practices, such as VIP schemes and restrictions for offshore firms.

For now, football fans will continue to see the logos of betting companies on the shirts of their favorite teams. In the not so distant future new legislation could bring an end to that familiar sight. However, the financial pressures of the coronavirus pandemic could slow down efforts to wean football off its reliance on betting sponsors.

Earlier this year, a House of Lords select committee recommended that gambling firms be banned from shirt sponsorship. It did take the current pressures of the pandemic into account, adding that this rule should not be applicable for teams below the Premier League before 2023. That would give smaller clubs lacking in financial support time to seek out other paying sponsors.