As of the start of the current season, over half of the teams in England’s top two divisions will have a gambling company as their main shirt sponsor. In fact, these sorts of business deals have become so commonplace that a betting firm was at the centre of the deal, which saw Wayne Rooney agree to join Derby County. Off the back of the signing, Derby County secured a record-breaking sponsorship partnership with a prominent betting site. As part of this sponsorship tie-up, Wayne Rooney will wear the number ‘32’ on the back of his shirt, a clear reference to the betting company’s name. Moves like these, however, have sparked a debate about the prominence and place of gambling companies in the world of football and beyond. Are we just seeing a passing fad, or do the ties between professional football and gambling go deeper than we might have previously anticipated?
Given that under current UK regulations, which are similar to those found across the world, gambling is generally restricted to those persons over the age of 18. Because of this, the gambling industry has traditionally been subject to quite stringent regulations about how they can advertise and under what conditions. For example, in the UK, betting companies are currently unable to advertise before 9pm as a way of limiting exposure of gambling to persons under the age of 18. Because of this, we have seen use of advertising strategies by gambling companies, which do not infringe upon this rule, such as the sponsoring of prominent sports teams, hence why so many professional football teams have the name of gambling companies on their kit.
Such partnerships, however, have become more popular than ever. Currently, in the English Premier League, 9 out of 20 teams have a shirt sponsorship deal with UK betting sites. Similarly, 17 out of 24 teams in the Championship are sporting logos of such firms. In this context, the rise of gambling sponsorships has become a thorny issue in some sectors of society, with prominent Labour politicians calling for a complete ban on them. Some analysts suggest that putting the name of gambling companies in such a prominent position distorts the image of the game and creates false associations between football and gambling, which could lead to increases in the numbers of those gambling. However, there is also data to suggest that online betting is not rapidly increasing per se, but we are seeing a general shift from traditional bookmakers to an increased prevalence of online betting platforms. “This is worrying,” Gambling Watch UK’s Professor Jim Orford told PA Sport. “There is evidence that gambling is becoming ever more normalised, particularly among young people, so that increasingly betting is seen as part and parcel of following and supporting one’s favourite sport or team.”
Recently, two gambling operators— Ladbrokes owner GVC and Paddy Power Betfair — have broken ranks with other industry players and cancelled their sponsorship deals. It is not entirely clear what the future of gambling in football looks like. What is certain, however, is that this issue will continue to be a divisive one as shirt sponsorship deals in sport continue to increase in value and reach record-breaking levels.