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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.