All bets are off: banning gambling brands from sponsoring football will strengthen the game

All bets are off: banning gambling brands from sponsoring football will strengthen the game

As the government reveals the scope of its betting law review, is it time for football to ditch its gambling habit?

Not so long ago, we were watching bright red racing cars flying around circuits with Marlboro logos on their liveries. To think that this is recent history is just – wow.

In the future, looking back at when betting companies donned the shirts of football teams will evoke a similar feeling. This year’s report from the All Party Parliamentary Gambling Related Harm Group suggests removing all betting companies from sport sponsorships by the end of 2023. This week, announcing the scope of the government's betting law review, sports minister Nigel Huddleston said it was time to "pull our legal framework into the digital age".

Right now, nearly half of Premier League clubs have a betting company as their sponsor. These teams, loved by fans of all ages, have become too dependent on the quick dollar to consider the long-term impact of these partnerships.

If the government does go through with the ban, it will be painful. Very painful. But only in the short term.

Let’s not sugar coat it: there’s no denying that there are few industries that can match the easy money betting companies splash. A huge financial hole will form at the heart of half of the Premier League clubs, money already earmarked for the next marquee signing. As with any big change, there will be uncertainty. There is no quick fix.

But in the long term, if this shift happens, sport will come out stronger. 

So the question becomes, if this ban goes ahead, how do clubs begin to fill the void?

First, they have to start thinking of themselves as a brand. Controversial, I know; just by saying this I could be marched out of most club boardrooms. But it’s the truth. Every Premier League club is not just a brand, they’re a super brand, connecting with millions in ways others can only dream of, through an unbreakable bond of passion, love and loyalty. The best clubs have a clear sense of identity that manifests itself both on and off the pitch. They understand that they’re a brand and they own it.

And if you can acknowledge that your club is a brand, you can then start thinking like a brand. You can stop selling off your prized assets to the highest bidder for a short-term fix and start partnering other brands that share your values.

If you need convincing, just look at Harley-Davidson’s long-standing partnership with UFC. Both rebels, both outsiders, both tough as hell. Or the more recent partnership between Weetabix and The FA Wildcats programme, working side by side to inspire young girls to get into football. These connections make sense because they align. They stand for the same thing. They share the same vision. And this is where the new value lies. It’s in moving on from flogging real estate to forming partnerships based on authentically shared values and a common story.

The bottom line is that betting is bad for football. Not because betting is always intrinsically bad, but because betting companies add no meaningful value. 

In fact, I’d even say these companies diminish value and create damage by association. They have little interest in innovation, activation or being a true partner. They halt the progress of rights holders, cheapen their brand and turn people off. Clubs and leagues are left addicted to the money, unable to break free and fulfil their true potential.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are great success stories that point to a way forward. Just look at the transformation of the Premier League. It went from an invisible rights-holder that handed the keys over to Barclays, to the world’s most loved brand of football with a world-class portfolio of like-minded partners, all aligning with its values and hand-picked to help it achieve its strategic goals. 

The trade works for both sides. The Premier League brand gets to burst out of stadiums and onto the shelves around the nation, in front of mums, kids and families. And partners get access to valuable IP and real innovation: The Coca-Cola Trophy Tour, The Budweiser Hall of Fame, Cadbury FC. These are real partnerships with real value for both sides. No dependency. No downside. You could call it a win-win.

Stuart Watson is founder of sports branding agency Nomad 

Photo: Stoke City vs Leeds United in August 2019 (Pat Scaasi/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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