How Do Football Fans React to Betting Company Sponsorship?

vector illustration of a football cup 2018. design of a stylish background for the soccer championship

So, are you enjoying the World Cup? Me too, but there’s something not quite right about it. Something seems, well… wrong. And no, it’s not Germany’s creaking midfield, Brazil’s inability to put the ball in the net, or the clear evidence that Argentina has a one-man team.

It’s the shirts. Specifically, the lack of sponsorship on them. After years of seeing shirts with sponsors’ logos from global multinationals to the local taxi firm plastered across them, suddenly seeing a football shirt as just a football shirt seems wrong. There are the ads for Coca-Cola and Macdonald’s running remorselessly round the pitch and every time someone is interviewed there are the ads in the background, but the shirts are virgin territory.

Fortunately, that’s not a problem that will apply when England’s Premier League kicks off on August 11; then we can expect to see shirt sponsorship back in all its glory. And, like last year, we can expect to see plenty of the teams sponsored by sports betting companies. Not all fans are in favor of that; and, with sports betting likely to be legalized in most US states, will we see the same pattern there? And how will the fans and players, many of them with strongly-held religious views, react?

The Premier League 2017/2018

There are 20 teams in the English Premier League. Last year, the value of shirt sponsorships ranged from the £47m ($62m) Chevrolet paid to Manchester United to the £1.5m ($2m) Ope Sports paid Huddersfield Town. Exactly half the teams were sponsored by betting companies, with the highest reported deal being the £10m ($13m) Betway paid to West Ham.

At the time of writing, not all the sponsorship deals for the coming season have been revealed, but it is likely that around half the teams will again be sponsored by betting companies. Last year the Premier League lost West Bromwich Albion, Stoke City and Swansea (with the latter two sponsored by Bet365 and LeTou respectively). Of the promoted clubs, Fulham was sponsored by Grosvenor Casinos, while Cardiff was sponsored by “Visit Malaysia.”

Last year’s championship winner, Wolverhampton Wanderers, was sponsored by the Money Shop but has just announced a lucrative tie-up with Philippines-based betting company W88.

For the betting companies, this may make sound commercial sense: W88 is apparently planning to launch in the UK and a tie-up with Wolves, backed by Chinese conglomerate Fosun and likely to be pushing for a place in the top six, could pay big dividends. But not all the club’s fans are in favor of the move.

“I can’t buy a shirt for my kids…”

There is one immediate problem with a betting company sponsoring a football team’s kit: the junior replica kit cannot bear the name of the sponsor. Premier League rules explicitly rule out a betting company on kit aimed at under-18s, which increasingly leads to teams having separate sponsors for the junior kit. But as any parent will tell you, that may not be what your son or daughter really, really wants.

A more serious problem

But there is a more serious problem: Many fans in the UK do not exactly welcome the involvement of betting companies, despite the vast majority of them saying it doesn’t influence on whether or not they will place a bet on the game.

Most football fans in the UK don’t hold overtly Christian views, but reading through the comments on the Wolverhampton Wanderers’ forum, the fans weren’t exactly jumping for joy at their new sponsor. “I’d been expecting Thomas Cook or ClubMed,” wrote one fan, referring to two other companies owned by Fosun. “Disappointed by this.”

Another fan wrote: “Better than a money-lender. But only just.”

One fan did welcome the news, pointing out that it would bring a lot of money into the club and pertinently asking, “Since when did everyone [on this forum] turn into Mary Poppins?” But the overwhelming reaction to W88 was negative.

No fans, though, were saying that they would refuse to buy the shirt, nor were there any stories of players objecting to the sponsorship deal.

Papiss Cisse and Wonga

That wasn’t the case back in 2013, when Newcastle player Papiss Cisse initially refused to wear the club’s shirt, which was sponsored by short-term loan company Wonga. Cisse was one of a number of Muslim players of St James’ Park at the time and refused to wear the shirt on religious grounds.

What about the US?

The row was eventually resolved, but the case, along with the mixed reaction of UK fans to sponsorship by gambling companies, does pose questions for the US as online gambling is legalized. Anyone watching the NFL or NBA games will have seen plenty of examples of players deep in prayer before and during games. Clearly, millions of US sports fans will share similar religious convictions.

British bookmaker William Hill, set to expand rapidly in the US, has reported that it has been “inundated” by US sports teams seeking sponsorship. If you’re the general manager of a team, making a request makes sound commercial sense. But, if you’re a fan or player with deeply held religious beliefs, you might not be so happy. It may look like a win/win for the betting company and the sports team, but the players and the fans may take a different view.