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Shirty money: A brief look at football’s relationship with the gambling industry

A couple of days ago, Simon Stevens, the Chief Executive of the British National Health Service (NHS) said that foreign-owned betting companies who sponsor British football clubs should financially contribute to paying for gambling addicts’ treatment. I am all in favour of this, although I think some money should also be allocated to education, prevention, and (predictably) research. This is also an area that I have written about recently.

More specifically, I and my colleague Dr. Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez published a paper earlier this year entitled ‘Betting, forex trading, and fantasy gaming sponsorships – A responsible marketing inquiry into the ‘gamblification’ of English football’ in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. Using data about sponsorship deals from English Football Premier League, we demonstrated that gambling marketing has become firmly embedded in the financial practices of many Premiership football clubs. We argued that these associations are not trivial, and that the symbolic linkage of sport and newer gambling forms may become an issue of public health, especially affecting vulnerable groups such as minors and problem gamblers.

A major preoccupation regarding gambling intersection with sports has been the marketing of betting as an experience inherently associated with the symbolic culture of sport. By emphasising its connections with sports, the marketing and advertising of betting has been theorised to pursue the ‘sanitation’ of gambling, transferring the health-related symbolic attributes of sport and physical exercise to betting behaviour. In this regard, of great concern is the effects that an excessive volume of betting marketing might have on vulnerable groups such as minors and young adults and individuals suffering or recovering from gambling disorder. Furthermore, additional issues might arise in the event that those new categories that extend the definition of sports gambling (i.e., trading, other gambling forms such as poker, and fantasy games) seeking to market their products in alignment with (or appropriation of) sports’ core values and positive attributes. Early examples of this marketing strategy can be found in the sport stars’ endorsement of poker brands such as the footballers Neymar Jr. and Cristiano Ronaldo, and the tennis player Rafael Nadal.

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We asserted in our paper that football shirt sponsorship is arguably a good proxy to calibrate the volume of gambling marketing in English football. Table 1 shows the shirt sponsor evolution over a decade (from the 2007/2008 to 2016-2017 seasons). First team shirt sponsorship with gambling companies evolved from four deals in 2008, six deals in 2012, to ten deals in 2017, accounting for half of the 20 English Premier League teams. The saturation of shirt logos owned by gambling brands has evolved rapidly over a relatively short period of time. However, some industry voices have been anticipating a decline in the numbers of shirts being sponsored by gambling firms due to their incapacity to compete with other business sector, although such a decline has yet to materialise.

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In the same vein, it has been noted that most of the football teams with shirts sponsored by gambling companies are among the less powerful in the league, both in terms of economic profitability and sporting success. Analysing the data from end of season table positions indeed demonstrates a bias of gambling companies sponsoring teams towards the bottom of the table. Thus, the four teams (out of 20 in the English Premier League) with gambling logos in 2007/08 finished the league 6th, 7th, 11th, and 15th. In 2011-12, the six teams sponsored by gambling companies finished 10th, 11th, 13th, 16th, 18th, and 20th. In 2016/2017 season, the ten teams with gambling sponsors showed an almost perfect inverse correlation between table position and gambling-origin shirt sponsor, ranking 9th, 10th, 11th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, and 20th (19th being a money loan company).

This could be interpreted as a nuanced strategy. More specifically, gambling operators might believe they have enough global exposure that the league as whole offers, without needing to pay premium sponsorship deals to attach their brand to the most supported and successful teams (because all the lower ranked teams have to play all the upper ranked teams and therefore get equal advertising exposure during televised games).

Table 2 shows the breadth of the gamblification process by focusing on sponsorship deals running through 2016-17 season in the English Premier League. As can be observed, all teams secured at least one official betting partner, with some of them having multiple partners due to regional deals in strategic markets to provide so-called ‘geo-targeted’ betting experience. An illustration example is Arsenal club’s deals with 12Bet company in Asia, Betfair in Europe, SportPesa in Kenya, and Tempobet in Oceania. Altogether, the 20 English Premier League teams totalled 20 different betting brands, with 12 brands sponsoring only one team, five brands sponsoring two teams, and three brands sponsoring three different teams. Despite how fragmented the betting market might look, these brands represent only a small fraction of the actual number operating in association with the English football. In fact, betting brands are generally considered to offer poorly differentiated products in highly competitive markets. Consequently, marketing plays a significant part in artificially creating singular attributes that facilitate the acquisition and maintenance of customers.

Screen Shot 2018-09-06 at 10.10.38Sponsorship deals with trading companies are not as prevalent as betting sponsorships. However, 14 out of 20 English Premier League teams have linked partnership deals with trading companies – most notably forex trading – for 2016/17 season. Only one trader (EZTrader) sponsors two different teams, while the rest are unique sponsors. Arguably, the same betting market attributes of low product differentiation and competitive environment also applies to trading firms.

Fantasy gaming is rapidly becoming a large component of sports appreciation, especially in the USA where fantasy sports appears to have partially absorbed the consumer base for online sports betting, an illegal activity in most states. Although still in its infancy in Europe, eight out of 20 English teams already have agreements in place with fantasy sports companies, some of which include a deal with DraftKings, the leading company along with FanDuel in USA’s fantasy gaming market. The concentration of brands here is slightly higher than in the case of betting and trading sponsorships, but six different brands still populate the growing fantasy gaming market in the English Premier League.

The detrimental effect on public health of an increase in the sports betting marketing volume is difficult to demonstrate. British data collected by the Gambling Commission is inconclusive due to the lack of definition of what constitutes gambling on sports. In general, research has found difficult to substantiate the causal association between gambling advertising exposure and behaviour, particularly when the effects of such exposure might take place weeks or months later. Despite the difficulties of finding empirical evidence of the real impact of marketing on betting behaviour, many authors have acknowledged that the association between marketing and gambling disorder is plausible, at least theoretically.

The sports betting marketing and advertising growth could be theorised to have two effects. First, an increase in gambling advertising exposure will lead to a higher prevalence rate of problem gambling. Many scholars have indicated that problem gamblers are usually more exposed to advertising (e.g., they visit more frequently gambling websites or watch more sport events), therefore it cannot be established whether they gamble more because they are exposed to more marketing instances or the are more exposed because they gamble more. However, a study I published with my Norwegian colleagues at the University of Bergen conducted among 6,034 Norwegian gamblers found that problem gamblers had a greater involvement with gambling advertising even when they were similarly exposed than regular non-problem gamblers.

Second, an overall rise in the consumption of gambling products following more aggressive marketing strategies, even while maintaining stable the percentage of people experiencing gambling-related harm, would lead to a rise in absolute numbers of people developing gambling problems. Simply put, keeping problem gambling rate constant, the more people that bet on sports, the more problem gamblers.

There is a wide consensus that sports betting marketing (and advertising) must be regulated, and is the case in most jurisdictions including the UK. However, there is no specific protection concerning the marketing of trading and fantasy gaming as a specific product category associated with sports. Finally, our paper noted that although there is no scientific evidence the marketing agreements between football clubs and the gambling industry are actually having a detrimental effect on the aforementioned vulnerable groups, it makes theoretical sense to think that they might potentially cause harm.

Note: This article was co-written with Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D., Estévez, A., Guerrero-Solé F. & Lopez-Gonzalez, H. (2018). A brief overview of online sports betting advertising and marketing. Casino and Gaming International, 33, 51-55.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H., Estévez, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Marketing and advertising online sports betting: A problem gambling perspective. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 41, 256-272.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H., Estévez, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Controlling the illusion of control: A grounded theory of sports betting advertising in the UK. International Gambling Studies, 18, 39-55.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Is European online gambling regulation adequately addressing in-play betting advertising? Gaming Law Review and Economics, 20, 495-503.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Betting, forex trading, and fantasy gaming sponsorships – A responsible marketing inquiry into the ‘gamblification’ of English football. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 16, 404-419.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Understanding the convergence of online sports betting markets. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, in press.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. Guerrero-Solé, F., Estévez, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Betting is loving and bettors are predators: A Conceptual Metaphor Approach to online sports betting advertising. Journal of Gambling Studies, in press.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H., Guerrero-Sole, F. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). A content analysis of how ‘normal’ sports betting behaviour is represented in gambling advertising. Addiction Research and Theory, 26, 238-247.

‘Fanorexia’ and ‘ballimia’: Football fanaticism, brand loyalty, and addiction

As the 2018 World Cup kicks in, it’s an opportune time to ask why are we so loyal to our national and club football teams? Whatever the results, we tend to support them week in week out, all year round. They can cause us misery and heartache and yet still we support them. As a Sunderland fan, I know this only too well. In the season just ended I went from agony to even more agony as I saw Sunderland get relegated for the second season in a row.

Could it be that following our clubs is an addiction? It has been argued by academics working in the marketing field that commercial organisations would love to have the kind of brand loyalty shown by football fans – something that Ken Parker and Trish Stuart argued in their award winning paper The ‘West Ham Syndromepublished in the Journal of the Market Research Society (I’m not making this up, honest!).

Parker and Stuart, working at the time of the study for the company Discovery Research, surveyed 2000 adults and also carried out some focus group interviews with football fans (including some ardent West Ham United supporters). They found that 58% of males had made a commitment to club their team by the age of 11 years. (I just happen to be one of those men having supported Sunderland from the age of 7 years of age after watching them beat Leeds in the 1973 FA Cup Final). More than half of children whose parents supported a team went on to support the same one, while a third of all fans still followed their local team.

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Marketeers would love to be able to take the seemingly unstinted loyalty of football fans and somehow transfer that loyalty to the products they are trying to sell. For instance, the brand of coffee we buy tends to be governed by many factors such as television advertising, the taste, the price, the packaging, etc. If we come across coffee that (for whatever reason) is better (cheaper, tastes better, etc.), we automatically switch our ‘allegiance’ to another brand of coffee. Parker and Stuart argued that wherever West Ham finish in the league, Hammers fans would not desert their club and/or switch to another club. So what’s the difference between football clubs as a brand and other commercial products as a brand? Maybe it’s passion and the fact that football can be such an emotional experience for the diehard fan.

Some working in the advertising industry claim many people working in marketing lack passion in their product. Apparently there are other products (such as cars) that consumers get very passionate about and this means that they repeatedly buy a particular make of car despite any acknowledged faults. However, one huge fault can damage a brand’s reputation almost overnight, as Toyota is only too aware. The good news for Toyota is that one of the most interesting things about research on the ‘West Ham Syndrome’ is that it can help to explain why leading brands are able to bounce back from PR disasters in similar ways to football clubs come back from being relegated to a lower division.

However, are football fans really as loyal as most of us assume? A paper by Alan Tapp examined the loyalty of football fans (in the Journal of Database Marketing and Customer Strategy Management) and wondered what it is about football clubs as a brand that makes them so successful – especially as the ‘product’ is so inconsistent and unpredictable? (‘Inconsistent’ and ‘unpredictable are certainly words I would associate with the England team and the England players!). Parker and Stuart claimed that levels of loyalty were “only marginally affected” by West Ham’s fortunes. However, Tapp says this is completely untrue. He cites analysis of football attendance figures since 1945 to show that crowd sizes are related to a team’s position in the league, and that teams lose support when they are doing poorly. Despite the fact that crowd attendance is linked to how well a football club is doing, it’s still probably true to say that football fans are still more loyal to their club than they are to most other products. All this goes to show is that most of us will continue to love England, warts and all.

Just before the 1998 World Cup, I began to carry out some research into football fanaticism and whether football fanatics could be considered ‘addicted’ to following their football team. This is easier said than done as it all depends upon how addiction is defined, and if ‘football fan addiction’ exists, what are people actually addicted to? I define addiction as any behaviour that features what I believe to be the six core components of addiction (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict and relapse). Throughout my career, I have consistently argued that any behaviour that fulfils these six criteria should be considered as a genuine addiction. If you were addicted to following your football team, this is what I would expect:

Salience – This occurs when following your football team (and doing things related to your football team) becomes the most important activity in your life and dominates your thinking (total preoccupation), feelings (cravings) and behaviour (deterioration of socialized behaviour). For instance, even if you are not actually engaged in something football-related, you will be thinking about the next time that you are.

 Mood modification – This is the subjective experience that you would feel as a consequence of following your football team (i.e. you experience an arousing ‘buzz’ or a ‘high’ – or the exact opposite – a tranquilizing feeling of ‘escape’ or ‘numbing’ when following your team).

Tolerance – This is the process whereby increasing amounts of activity related to your football team are needed to get mood modifying effects. This basically means that if you were engaged in activities related to following your football team, you would gradually build up the amount of the time you spend engaged in those activities.

Withdrawal symptoms – These are the unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects (e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability etc.) that occur when you are prevented from following your football team or stopped from engaging in football-related activities.

Conflict – This refers to the conflicts between following your football team and those around you (interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (your job, schoolwork, social life, hobbies and interests) or from within yourself (knowing you are doing too much of the activity and/or subjective feelings of loss of control) which are concerned with spending too much time following your football team.

 Relapse – This is the tendency to revert back to earlier patterns of behaviour (following your football team and engaging in football-related activity) after a period of abstinence.

Using these criteria, I have come across very few genuine examples of someone addicted to a football team. The most extreme case I have come across was one woman who left her husband because of his ‘addiction’ to Chelsea football club. She told me that their bedroom was a shrine to Chelsea, he watched almost every Chelsea game home and away (including European away matches), spent all their joint savings and ran up huge debts following Chelsea, and eventually got sacked from his job because he kept ringing in sick whenever Chelsea were playing hundreds of miles from home during midweek games. Out of season he would be constantly depressed and would try to alleviate his mood by endlessly watching videos of Chelsea’s greatest games. Once the football season started, his depression would lift. I never met this individual but he appears to have fulfilled my criteria for addiction.

For most people, enthusiastically following your team – even to excess – is unlikely to be an addiction. The main difference between a healthy excessive enthusiasm and an addiction is that healthy enthusiasms add to life and addictions take away from it.

(Please note that a version of this article was originally published in The Conversation)

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Behavioural addiction and substance addiction should be defined by their similarities not their dissimilarities. Addiction, 112, 1718-1720.

Parker, K., Stuart, T. 1997. The West Ham syndrome. Journal of the Market Research Society, 39(3), 509-517.

Tapp, A. (2004). The loyalty of football fans – We’ll support you evermore? Journal of Database Marketing and Customer Strategy Management, 11, 203-215.