Asian bookmakers advertising in UK football stadiums and on club shirts is a long-established practice, but it feeds into the heated debates around marketing and responsible gambling.
Asian sportsbooks sponsoring English Premier League football clubs is nothing new, but a recent short film from the Financial Times attempts to shed new light on the practice and lift the lid on some of these operators’ ownership structures. Unsurprisingly, it’s nigh on impossible, and in fact always has been, to be certain of who the ultimate owners of these businesses are.
Some threads are pulled at and among industry executives at least some of the findings will not be surprising, but, and maybe just as importantly, the FT’s report highlights an odd practice at the heart of the UK’s gambling sector.
It is often said that one of the major prizes for being regulated in major consumer markets is that licensed operators are able to advertise their products openly and across all major media channels; whether print, online, TV or through sports sponsorships.
The levels of gambling advertising that have resulted from so many states launching regulated sports betting in the U.S. since 2018, with the situation replicated across many regulated European markets over an even longer time period, are testament to this.
However, it is also the high visibility and exposure that the advertising provides that attracts so much criticism and has led to countries such as Spain, Italy and more recently Belgium and the Netherlands to introduce strict new regulations around gambling advertising and sports sponsorships.
As far as the UK is concerned, the country’s regulations allow operators licensed in the Isle of Man, where most of these Asian bookmakers are based, to advertise on the British mainland thanks to it being on the White List of approved jurisdictions from where licensed operators can advertise into the main UK market.
The result has been that many English Premier League clubs have had Asian bookmakers which very few British consumers have ever heard of as their main shirt sponsors. Those companies also advertise heavily on stadium hoardings and as with most such activities, the public has in the main gotten used to it, even if an increasing number of fan and supporter groups are pressuring their clubs not to agree to such sponsorships.
For all that, it is an odd state of affairs to have so many bookmakers that take no (or really minimal) action from UK punters as shirt sponsors of football clubs that play in the country’s top league.
Of course, the reason those operators sponsor the clubs is because the Premier League is the most popular football/soccer league to be broadcast in Asia. The Chinese market is vast but countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia are also major target markets for the bookmakers.
The result is that the UK is playing host to a strange situation where, as the FT mentions in the film, online sports betting is illegal throughout much of Asia (outside of a few state-run operations), but UK regulations enable bookmakers to promote products that are illegal for many of the consumers in the target markets.
The prism through which the topic has been approached in this feature is particular to the UK, but the broader topic of advertising is highly relevant to the U.S., whether with regard to the rise in ad impressions recorded between January and August, or how marketing impacts young people and young men especially. Meanwhile, for many critics of the gambling sector, sports betting is now seen as an intrinsic part of the sporting experience and is another negative feature that can be thrown at the sector.
Most of the sports clubs that agree to these sponsorships tend to be mid-table or lower down the league – and for all the glitz and glamor of the Premier League, they often operate on very tight budgets, while relegation can have a major impact on their finances. So naturally when a bookmaker comes in with a sponsorship offer that is 20% or 30% above the going rate, the clubs would be foolish to turn down such offers.
For Asian bookmakers, football club sponsorships are the most effective way of raising the awareness levels of their brands. And while Asia as a region has a reputation for generating huge volumes, building up a brand presence there is slow, costly and painstaking because advertising, especially in China, is highly restricted and difficult to do at scale.
The UK Gambling Commission told CDC Gaming that sports clubs should carry out thorough due diligence when dealing with new commercial partners, but that “the best way for sports bodies to protect themselves is to ensure that they only promote gambling operators licensed by us”.
As mentioned previously, the topic covered in this article is very UK-specific, but the sound and fury surrounding it when the themes of marketing and responsible gambling come up is relevant to the U.S. and many other big markets.
As I wrote back in March, “for all the furor around addiction and problem gambling, what is also fueling much of the backlash against the industry in both the U.S. and Europe is the visibility that mainstream advertising provides”. Would reducing advertising volumes lower the amount of criticism the industry receives? Unlikely, but it might quell some of the discontent or show that the industry is listening.