In July last year the government announced that it was to delay, for a fourth time, the then long-awaited white paper review of the Gambling Act 2005.
The review promised to examine gambling regulation following warnings that more needed to be done to protect the public from gambling-related harm.
As part of the review the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was to look at the ‘sponsorship of sports teams and events including shirt sponsorship’, and assess its potential harms and benefits. In anticipation, the Premier League put forward a proposal to the government that clubs would voluntarily phase out gambling brands as this type of front-of-shirt sponsor in an attempt to avoid an outright ban. This was in summer last year and since then Bournemouth, Fulham and Everton have all signed gambling businesses as their 2022/23 season sponsors. Crystal Palace and Wolves are the only clubs to have switched to non-gambling companies.
As we await the final white paper various leaks have led to speculation that some of the reforms will be watered down.
With this present context in mind we wanted to review how gambling and other industries have permeated through the Premier League through their front-of-shirt sponsorship deals since the league’s inception.
While the gambling industry was the initial focus of this study, we’ve tried to analyse how the appearance of other industries reflect attitudes to particular products and the developing economy, as well as consider how foreign interest – and therefore foreign money – has influenced the league.
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The first gambling brands arrived as main shirt sponsors in the Premier League in the 2002-03 season in the form of Betfair’s deal with Fulham. Since then the industry has become one of the most prolific front-of-shirt sponsors; in the 2016-17 and 2019-20 seasons 50 per cent of clubs were sponsored by gambling brands.
The introduction of the Gambling Act 2005 allowed companies to ‘advertise all forms of gambling in any media, just like any other product, albeit with specific controls’ which heralded the era we are in today whereby 40 per cent of main shirt sponsors are gambling brands (2022-23 season). At the same time, alcohol sponsorship started to dwindle (which we discuss in the next section) leaving an obvious void which gambling was more than happy – and now legally able – to fill.
Between 1994-95 30 per cent of clubs in the Premier League had alcohol brands as their main shirt sponsors – those wishing to engage in some nostalgia will remember the likes of McEwan’s sponsorship of Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle, Carlsberg’s 18 years with Liverpool, and Holsten’s 13-year deal with Spurs.
Since the end of the 2001-02 season the league has slowly sobered up – plateauing until 2017 when the Chang beer deal with Everton became the last remaining alcohol sponsor.
In 1991 in France it became illegal for alcohol brands to use sponsorship to promote alcohol, a law which foreign teams had to abide by when playing there. Later in 2007 the Portman Group, a trade organisation representing the drinks industry, agreed to help protect children from alcohol marketing at sports by removing alcohol sponsors from children’s replica kits.
And among the wider public there has been increasing criticism of alcohol’s seemingly incongruous relationship with sport, as science progressively revealed its harms and detrimental effect on performance.
Pawnbrokers, unsecured and payday loans companies make a brief appearance as main shirt sponsors in the Premier League between the 2006-07 and 2016-17 seasons.
Wonga signed a widely criticised deal worth £24 million with Newcastle in 2012 before it ultimately went into administration in 2018 and later collapsed.
Personal finance brand and pawnbroker, Cash Converters, sponsored Hull City’s shirt for the 2013-14 season while Capital One and loans.co.uk sponsored Sheffield United and Watford respectively over the 2006-07 season.
Wonga is a notable mention as it featured separately as both Blackpool and Newcastle United’s main shirt sponsor during the period. The company generated a reputation for extortionately high interest rates, and was symbolic of Britain’s household debt crisis which had been steadily rising since the late 1990s, until eventually the financial crash of 2008.
IT and Computing
Since the 1992-93 season deals with IT and Computing firms had their moment; at the peak in 1998-99, they made up 20 per cent of the Premier League shirt deals.
The nineties was a time of rapid tech growth thanks to the expansion and capabilities of consumer computers. Names such as Packard Bell and Hewlett-Packard donned the shirts of Leeds United and Spurs respectively.
Telecommunication companies saw a significant rise around the millennium heralded by the likes of One2One, Vodafone and BT Cellnet’s deals for Everton, Manchester United, and Middlesborough in that order.
Mobile phone technology began to significantly improve around this time and by around 1996 approximately 16 per cent of UK households owned a mobile phone – explosively growing to 80 per cent in just a decade.
A real ‘passing of the baton’ moment occurred at the end of the 1999-00 season when the 18-year deal between electronic manufacturer Sharp ended with Manchester United, only to be replaced by the up-and-coming Vodafone for the next four years.
Electronic manufacturers have featured regularly throughout the history of the Premier League – during the heyday of their sponsorship big brands included the likes of JVC, NEC, Brother and Sharp. However since the early noughties electronics brands have been on the decline, until their eventual disappearance in 2016-17.
High flying sponsors have persistently made their mark in the Premier League with some of the longest-running sponsorships in its history.
Arsenal and Emirates’ front-of-shirt deal began in 2006, and in 2018 it signed a five-year extension with the club, thought to be worth in excess of £200 million to take them right up to the end of 2023-24.
Emirates’ 18-year-old deal with the UAE carrier only just surpasses Manchester City’s with Etihad Airways which has been running for 14 years since 2009.
Both deals signalled the start of increasing interest from the Gulf which some say is part of a broader agenda to garner soft power, weald influence and allegedly ‘sportswash’ over the Emirates’ human rights records.
A word on Crypto sponsorship
The digital assets industry and its respective association with sport has been hitting the headlines recently. Most notable is the collapse of FTX who leveraged sponsorship deals with high-profile sports teams in order to gain access to new audiences. Rights holders from basketball, motorsport and baseball have suffered as a result of its collapse and the subsequent arrest of its disgraced founder, Sam Bankman-Fried.
With many clubs uncertain about the future of gambling sponsorship, it was thought that crypto brands might plug the gap in recent seasons, but so far there haven’t been any exclusively crypto front-of-shirt deals in the Premier League (although some gambling brands do allow punters to bet with cryptocurrencies).
That’s not to say that crypto hasn’t infiltrated the league; in the current season Dogecoin features as Watford’s sleeve sponsors and bitci.com as Wolves’. Research by The Athletic revealed that nearly all of 2021-22’s clubs had at least one crypto sponsor at some level.
As the Crypto Winter set in (a term coined to represent the steep decline in the value of digital currencies) many clubs have been wary about signing such visible sponsorship deals. The dealings of FTX further helped to reveal issues around the governance, financials and ethics of this fledgling industry. We’ve been asked by our clients in sport and football to examine major and minor figures in crypto, and our investigations have uncovered and flagged major concerns.
The Premier League has seen a diverse set of industries as front-of-shirt sponsors that over the past 30-plus years have ebbed and flowed with consumer interest, foreign agendas, sector growth and changes in the law. Yet none has been more prevalent than the gambling industry.
The shady world of digital assets has created a justifiable reticence in activating partnerships in this sector and yet despite the threat of a gambling sponsorship ban, receiving funds from betting brands still appears to be a more attractive source of revenue for clubs.
Whether this is set to change remains to be seen. Only the publication of the government’s long-awaited gambling review white paper will provide the Premier League with complete certainty.
If you’d like to learn more about the backgrounds of the Premier League’s shirt sponsors you can read our Premier League Sponsorship Review which reports on all the front-of-shirt and sleeve deals of the 2021-22 season.
We will be reporting and giving our analysis on the government’s white paper when it is published…whenever that happens. Stay tuned.