Why Tom Watson is wrong about gambling brands on football shirts

Suggesting a blanket ban on gambling brands from football shirts only demonstrates a lack of understanding of the sports sponsorship industry, writes Wasserman's director of marketing services

As reported earlier this week, Labour shadow culture secretary Tom Watson, pictured above, has suggested a blanket ban on gambling brands taking the prime football sponsorship position of shirt sponsor. Some research that ran with the story suggested that logo time on screen alone was a major cause of gambling addiction.

The issue of gambling addiction is a worrying one, especially if there is a growing epidemic as reported by the press. Ensuring children aren’t encouraged to gamble is another important issue. This being said, I can’t help thinking this blanket statement around football shirts demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of sports sponsorship and its complexity – not to mention failing to address the real negative issues around gambling.

For the vast majority of the betting public, just like having a beer or eating from a fast food outlet, betting isn’t a problem. They all need to be approached in moderation with sensible marketing from the brands themselves.

Betting has evolved into an accepted and sometimes expected part of the way we now consume sports. Betting on your fantasy league team or putting a fiver on Arsenal to (finally) win the Premier League, only adds to the enjoyment of this country’s favourite pass-time. In countries like Australia and the US, there is more stigma attached to this, but certainly here, having this sort of personal stake plays a large part in turning a sports match into an entertainment spectacle.

Of course, it’s this interaction that shirt sponsorship heightens. And in a hugely competitive sector like gambling, brands have a lot to gain from prime visibility during the match. This is why shirt sponsorship costs are often in the seven-figure range.

At the risk of teaching grandmothers to suck eggs, this is also why it’s not a one-way street: for those 90 minutes of glory (or if not, certainly prime-time exposure), the sponsorship cash also contributes heavily into the development of the team and subsequently the game that we all love.

Where Watson has a point is in recognising that gambling can be an issue. For some, it’s a real problem, and in fact, some of the highest profile cases of gambling addiction have been footballers themselves. Where he’s misguided is in focusing just on banning shirt sponsorship. After all, there’s activation, advertising, digital content… all the platforms on which brands reach people today.

While shirt sponsors get huge exposure through the many channels sport is now consumed, it’s very hard indeed to prove a direct correlation between logo placement and any resulting negative consumer behaviour. Sure, it provides valuable brand exposure, but it’s the whole package – how you activate the sponsorship – that brings the brand to life and can influence behaviour.

If Watson’s going to make any impact on what is unquestionably a growing gambling problem, he’d do better to encourage more controlled governmental monitoring of the messaging around brand sponsorships and wider communication tactics. (Surely offering crazy half-time odds to TV audiences is more likely to prompt people to act rather than a logo placement?)

All marketing activity, across verticals, has the potential to influence behaviour, otherwise we wouldn’t do it. So in Watson’s world, what comes next? Credit card companies banned from the stadium for fear of encouraging people to get into debt?

Isolating shirt sponsorship in this way is too simplistic. Watson and his party would do better to engage with the gambling brands, clubs, rights holders and football organisations to promote sensible and responsible enjoyment of placing a bet.

Unlike Watson’s comparison to tobacco – something that is harmful no matter how moderate the consumption – gambling, eating from fast food outlets or drinking beer are not harmful. It’s just that all need to be done in moderation with sensible marketing from the brands themselves. Real behaviour change comes from reinforcing the core message of acting responsibly.

Ross Arnold is director of marketing services at Wasserman

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