Asia-facing U.K. football sponsorships face scrutiny

The future of high-profile sponsorships of British football teams by largely Asian-facing sports-betting and online casino brands could be in doubt if proposals put forward by the UK’s main opposition party come into force.

The UK Labour Party’s deputy leader and spokesperson for gambling-related policy Tom Watson has said he is “concerned about the relationship between overseas gambling operators and British football teams.”

In calling for a “full review” of all remote licences issued since 2014, he suggested that the reputation of the UK licensing regime was on the line.

“I believe that a UK gambling licence should be a hallmark of credibility and trust,” he said in an article on the PoliticsHome website.

“It should not be seen as a platform for overseas operators to use the reputation of British sport as a marketing tool for their own domestic audience, whereby the benefits of the UK market are enjoyed, but nothing is given back to address the harm that is caused.”

Asian-facing betting and gaming brands have been a feature of UK football for some years, both in terms of shirt (and now shirt-sleeve) sponsorship and on the perimeter hoardings.

Among the Premier League sides that featured Asian-facing brands in the season just gone, Newcastle United had Fun88, Fulham featured Dafabet (which also features on the shirt of Celtic on the Scottish Premiership), Crystal Palace had ManBetX emblazoned on their shirts, Bournemouth was sponsored by M88, Burnley had LaBa360 (deal now lapsed), Huddersfield wore OPE and lastly Wolves had W88 on its shirts.

Non-Asian-specific betting brands included SportPesa on Everton’s shirts and Betway at West Ham United.

In the close season, meanwhile, LoveBet has signed up to take over the shirt sponsorship at Burnley and Sportsbet.io, a bitcoin-based sportsbook, is now the main sponsor at Watford.

David Clifton, a partner at legal consultancy Clifton Davies, said Watson appeared to be blaming the regulator for “allowing overseas gambling operators to advertise their wares by way of shirt sponsorship” when that was the very working of the legislation. Such marketing is allowed “as long as effective steps are taken to prevent British consumers from using the gambling facilities in question,” he added.

Another legal source who preferred not to be named suggested, however, that the UK Gambling Commission has already privately indicated to operators that it will be applying more stringent investigations into the ownership of any operators from overseas applying for a UK licence.

“The Commission is asking more questions about where else in the world they derive their revenue, “ the source added.

Watson’s call for a licensing overhaul was cautiously welcomed by leading UK operator GVC, the company behind the Ladbrokes, Coral and Sportingbet brands.

“GVC strongly supports a robust regulatory framework  to ensure that all operators provide players with a fun, safe and fair environment in which to gamble while protecting potentially vulnerable individuals from harm,” a spokesperson said.

“As part of that regulatory oversight we would be fully supportive of a full review of current UK licence holders to ensure that all operators are upholding the standards that the British public expect and deserve.” 

The trend towards ever more Asian-facing brands using English and Scottish football as a platform for marketing their offerings to their audience in Southeast Asia and further afield is now well-established.

“Foreign bookmakers, especially Asian handicap books have famously used Premiership and Championship shirts to raise brand awareness amongst the tens of millions of hard to reach bettors in their home states for years,” says Harry Lang, a marketing consultant with Brand Architects.

“The global popularity of our home leagues have been like catnip for these operators vying to capture eyeballs in markets where TV and digital media are banned for betting firms.”

The silence from football with regard to its relationship with gambling operators is notable and its significant role in the mushrooming of the visibility of gambling in the UK was not touched upon by Watson.

Nevertheless, the English game does come in for some criticism from Lang. “As a business it’s been laissez faire about where the money comes from so if they won’t recognise that their international fan base is being targeted through back door UK licenses then the government will inevitably act the policeman and do the job for them.”

“I think the concept of the FA and clubs turning down sponsorship handouts from international bookies out of the goodness of their heart is naïve,” he added.