The season began with Emirates Airlines against Thai duty free giant King Power. Saturday’s games included the clash of the Malta-based bookmakers, ManBetX against Ope Sports, and another all-gambling clash when Kenya’s SportPesa take on England’s very own Bet365.
Premier League shirt sponsorship has changed beyond recognition since the days when Queens Park Rangers promoted Classic FM and Blackburn Rovers McEwan’s Lager. Just as the league itself has modernised, globalised, a magnet to foreign interest and foreign money, the shirt sponsorship market has followed.
This season will see just four UK-based brands on Premier League shirts, the lowest number in history. And, not unconnected to that, it will see nine bookmakers as shirt sponsors, one down from last season’s record of 10.
Looking at the changes in shirt sponsorship over time shows how clearly the market has changed. When the Premier League started, in 1992-93, the biggest sectors for shirt sponsorship were consumer electronics, with six deals, and beer, with four, according for research for The Independent by Ken Berard. Electronics and beer remained a steady presence through the 1990s before dwindling in the 2000s. Last season there was just one beer sponsor, Chang Beer on Everton’s shirts. They have now been replaced too, and this year, for the first time in Premier League history, there will be none.
The story of the second half of the Premier League era has been the story of gambling replacing alcohol as the sector that dominates its shirts. When BetFair first appeared on Fulham’s shirts in 2002-03 it felt quirky but now it is utterly commonplace.
Alcohol was synonymous with the first decade of the Premier League, which had Carling as its title sponsor from 1993 to 2001. But while beer partnerships are still part of the fabric of English football, those brands do not take quite the same direct approach as they used to. “The market reflects a changing dynamic among alcohol brands,” explained Tim Crow, CEO of leading sports marketing firm Synergy, “as beer brands have moved away from shirt sponsorship.”
The Portman Group is made of Britain’s leading alcohol producers and three years ago they brought out a new sponsorship code advising brands to be responsible in their sponsorship of sports, in part because they do not want to be seen to be marketing to children. Of course all Premier League teams have their own alcohol partners, but those brands have now stepped back from shirt sponsorship itself.
Into that space, gambling firms have moved. It is easy enough to see why it is an attractive move for them. With global viewing figures higher than ever, a shirt sponsorship is a fairly cheap way to reach millions of people all over the world. “The Premier League is a global advertising platform because of its reach,” Crow explains. “As a global advertising campaign for a brand, shirt sponsorship can be a cost-effective media buy.”
The big six clubs are so famous now that their shirt sponsorship deals are appropriately expensive. Chevrolet pay an estimated £53million to sponsor Manchester United’s shirts, Yokohama Tyres pay £40m each year to Chelsea. But while the top clubs charge a premium, for the smaller 14 it is a buyers’ market. Their shirts will cost in the mid-single figures of millions for each year. Not a big price to pay to be seen all over the world.
Online gambling is becoming bigger and bigger business, as anyone who watches football on television knows. In 2014 football revenues exceeded those for horse racing for online bookmakers in the UK and the gap has continued to grow since.
While only Bet365, who sponsor Stoke City and BetWay, who sponsor West Ham United, target the UK betting market, there has been a recent rise in investment from foreign bookmakers. They are far less interested in the UK markets, and more in the global audience the Premier League provides. That is why Sport Pesa, ManBetX, Fun88, LeTou, M88, Dafabet and Ope Sports – brands not especially well-known in the UK – are now seen on our televisions every weekend, during the segments of football that break up the adverts for British bookmakers.
While there is some criticism from the marketing industry that shirt sponsorship is a very “blunt instrument” ill-suited to reaching a targeted audience, there is little doubt that the sponsors themselves are happy with their investment. A source close to one such deal said that the sponsor found it to be “incredibly effective”, not just through the shirts on the players themselves, but the LED exposure around the pitch and even fans wearing the shirt all over the world.
But there is also a concern that, not for the first time, English football has sold out to the highest bidder. There are times when a Premier League match, whether live or on television, can look like an advertising channel for the gambling industry.
In June this year the Football Association ended its sponsorship deal with Ladbrokes, deciding that it was not appropriate for a governing body to have a gambling partner, in the light of the Joey Barton ban. In doing so the FA gave up an estimated £12m. That moment could yet mark a change in English football’s relationship with gambling money. Or, as the tide of cash comes in, and the clubs keep saying yes, it may not.