When it comes to marketing for betting operators, there is no method perhaps as pervasive and visible as sports sponsorship, but recent years have seen diverging trends on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
In Europe, regulated betting is a well-established and in most cases well-regulated industry – take the UK for example, where legal betting shops have been a staple of the high-street since the 1960s.
In contrast, in the US and in some Latin American markets, regulated betting has only just started making landfall in the last few years. Although 36 US states now allow betting, this has only occurred in the aftermath of the PASPA repeal in 2018, whilst in South America, huge markets such as Brazil are on the cusp of market launch.
Trendsetting in British betting
With regards to betting marketing, and particularly sponsorship, it seems that some of the more established European markets are becoming increasingly fed up, for want of a better term, with the extent of bookmaker sponsorships.
Take the UK for example. Whilst the country’s Gambling Act review did not include major restrictions for marketing, public discourse around the topic had already prompted the Premier League to vote in favour of phasing out front-of-shirt betting sponsors from the 202627 season.
The Gambling Act review White Paper’s main proposal in this area was a Code of Conduct for sponsorship, which included caveats such as a requirement for limited visibility of betting ads in family areas of stadiums.
However, towards the end of 2023, MPs of the CMS Select Committee – which scrutinises the work of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the department responsible for gambling industry oversight – argued that the government could have done more.
Meanwhile, although committing to removing front-of-shirt sponsors, Premier League clubs will retain sleeve partners and LED advertising. This could be seen as a win-win for the clubs and operators – bookmakers get to keep marketing and brand exposure, and the clubs continue to gain sponsorship revenue.
On the other hand, continued front-of-shirt deals between top-flight clubs and betting firms continue to prompt a negative response from some sections of support, such as in the case of Aston Villa and its partnership with BK8.
George Harborne, SBC Sponsorship Director, shared his views on the matter. He explained: “One consistent theme for the gambling sector and sponsorship is simply the amount of investment that sport receives through sponsorship agreements from the sector.
“Removing agreements or capping investment that can be made has a direct impact on the revenue that can be generated by sports teams, and subsequently the investment that can be made in playing squads, infrastructure and the local community.”
The UK is of course not the only European country where betting sponsorship remains under pressure. In the country’s neighbour, the Republic of Ireland, gambling reform is also underway, spearheaded by the Ministry of Justice.
Although the Irish government’s legislation has dealt more with player protection and creation of a new regulator rather than advertising, sections of the country’s political and sporting spheres have called for limitation – or in some cases outright prohibition – of betting ads.
Speaking of neighbours, Belgium and the Netherlands also introduced near-identical wide-ranging bans on betting marketing on 1 July this year, including a planned ban on sports sponsorships.
Lastly, in Italy and Spain, full blanket bans on sports marketing remain in force, despite the protests of some sports stakeholders, citing the much-needed revenue betting partnerships provide football clubs.
Harborne remarked: “Despite the blanket bans on sponsorship advertising from the gambling industry, the rise of ‘infotainment’ surrogates has meant that some gambling industry related advertising agreements continue to be struck in the market.
“Whilst this undermines the ban on gambling advertising, it does assist in reinforcing which brands can be trusted in a market that is seeing an increase in black market activity.”
Optimism for the Americas?
In contrast to Europe, perhaps unsurprisingly, the emerging and newly regulated markets of the Americas have seen a huge influx of sports sponsorships. In the US, all four major sports leagues – the MLB, NBA, NHL and NFL – have betting sponsors.
As with European nations, we’re also seeing partnerships at the club level. Both US-based market leaders such as FanDuel – a partner of the New York Yankees, for example – and Europe-based newcomers – like Tipico, a partner of the Columbus Crew MLS franchise.
The question on some people’s minds may be, how long will it be before US audiences, regulators and policymakers catch up with Europe and become fatigued with the high visibility of betting in sports?
The answer to this is yet to be seen. However, it seems that American sports and betting stakeholders have taken some lessons from Europe on board, and have begun promotion of responsible and safer gambling (RG & SG) in their marketing at an early stage.
A recent and high-profile example of this is the ‘Never Know What’s Next’ RG campaign launched by the NBA, NHL and MLB alongside the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) and DraftKings, FanDuel, Fanatics Sportsbook, and ESPN Bet parent group PENN Entertainment.
This has also been seen in South America – at the SBC Summit Barcelona earlier this year, four leading figures in Latin American football emphasised the importance of social responsibility in sports marketing.
Harborne added: “Markets such as Chile, Ecuador, and Brazil have seen steady increases in the value of sports sponsorship propositions driven by investment from the gambling industry.
“The excitement around the LatAm region and the need to build brand credibility quickly has seen sponsorship feature as an important part of the marketing mix.
“However, with each of these markets now facing their own regulatory headwinds and markets such as Colombia introducing advertising spending caps, we could begin to see a decline in the value of the agreements being struck over the coming years.”
With Brazilian regulations now given Presidential approval, paving the way for the country to launch what will be one of the world’s biggest betting markets, sports stakeholders are closer than ever to finding out what image the sports sponsorship landscape in the country will take.
It is clear that in the established markets of Europe a tug-of-war has been waged between sports stakeholders, operators, reform advocates, regulators and policymakers, among others, when it comes to gambling.
However, with the increasing internationalisation of the industry, the sharing of lessons and practices worldwide and operators’ entry into new and emerging markets, perhaps a coherent, global approach or policy on sponsorship isn’t such a pipe dream….