Since its inception in 1992, football’s Premier League has been big business – not just for ticket sales but also for corporate sponsorship deals. Top football events attract millions of viewers and, as such, provide the perfect advertising opportunity both on and off the pitch. Over the years, stadium hoardings and player’s shirts have been emblazoned with sponsorship logos and these have included Barclaycard, Carling and Barclays Bank. While this kind of advertising is considered to be standard, concerns have been raised over a new kind of sponsorship – that of Asian betting companies.
Keep your shirt on
This year, 8 out of 20 Premier League teams are sponsored by gambling companies and an increasing number of these are Asian businesses – primarily those from China. So, what’s behind the move ?
With a population of 1.4 billion people, many of whom are huge footie fans, China is known for its incredibly strict laws – and these include gambling. In China, gambling has been forbidden since the rise of the Communist Party in 1949 and, as such, it’s illegal for Chinese citizens to take part in any kind of gambling, other than the National Lottery and, those breaking the law can face up to seven years in prison.
It is also against the law to run a gambling company in China, and the government even goes as far as using drones to spot businesses which may be operating illegally. In 2021, over 80,000 people in China were arrested on suspicion of illegal gambling activity and many of these people served time in prison as a result.
So, what’s the problem?
Reports suggest that gambling companies in China and Asia are bypassing their national laws by using a middleman to set up shop offshore using a white label system. These organizations will then target customers in China using the draw of the massively popular Premier League.
The first issue here is that, if a football fan in China accesses and places a bet with one of these offshore organizations, he or she runs a very real risk of being arrested and possibly even jailed for doing so. When a Chinese national watches a televised Premier League match – and sees betting advertising in Chinese either in the stadium or on player’s shirts, he or she may mistakenly believe that following up on this is legal, thereby risking their job and home.
Secondly, back in the UK, concerns are rising over the fact that authorities are at times unaware that not a great deal is being done to vet and verify these Asian betting companies.
The reality of this is that they therefore have no way of knowing if these organizations – in an industry which is worth billions of dollars – are being used for illicit purposes such as money laundering, drug trafficking and other criminal activity. It’s thought that Premier League clubs and authorities are simply not performing due diligence when hitching their wagons to these companies and, inadvertently helping to fund criminal activity could be disastrous for teams and, for the Premier League as a whole.
Branding Director for a Philippines based betting company, Leo Ma, says, ‘I once tried to obtain a UK gambling license for a company directly but it was a hard, complicated and long process. Paying a middle man to acquire a white label license is much easier – you just pay a service fee’.
Clamping down at home and away
In recent times, the UK Government has announced that it will be zooming in on football advertising – and advertising for gambling companies in particular. At the moment, advertising for betting companies is allowed in UK football, apart from youth teams.
Matt Zarb-Cousin of Clean Up Gambling says, ‘By allowing these operators to advertise through white labels in Britain, we are effectively helping to facilitate illegal gambling abroad’. As well as profiting from countries with little or no regulation, many feel that any kind of betting advertising should be removed from Premier League football. In the UK, addiction to gambling is rapidly reaching epidemic proportions as Public Health England announces that there may be around 2.2 million problem gamblers in Great Britain.
While the UK Gambling Commission now recommends that betting companies donate 0.1% of their annual revenue to gambling charity, Gamble Aware, a great many organizations have declined to do this. There is likely to be a bit of a tug of war between legislation and the Premier League as, while many teams recognise the importance of reducing the number of gambling addicts in the UK, many of these teams rely heavily on the financial sponsorship from these organizations.
Chipping away at integrity
As we’ve mentioned, Asian white label or offshore gambling companies place a risk on Asian residents as well as the very real possibility that these sponsorships are funding money laundering and criminal activity. There are those who feel that, on top of all of this, it also damages the sport in general.
A spokesperson for the Global Lottery Monitoring System said, ‘The huge Asian betting markets facilitate illegal betting, match-fixing and corrupting sport. This clearly leaves sports and teams who profess to cherish sports integrity open to accusations of hypocrisy. Asian-facing betting operators leverage on their association with respected sports teams to legitimize their products and target customers in Asia, where both European football and betting are hugely popular. For sports teams and official governing bodies, this should raise concerns, as Asian betting operators market to customers in jurisdictions where most online gambling and online casinos such as hotslots.io are illegal or unlawful’.
In recent years, advertising within sports has been subject to ever tightening regulations – beginning with a ban on UK tobacco advertising in 2003, followed by a widespread ban on advertising for alcohol products. For many sports organizations such as the Premier League, the fact that governments are now looking at gambling advertising in football, probably feels like just another nail in the coffin in terms of funding.
With sports like football so hugely popular, an increasing number of people do feel that the sport holds a huge responsibility towards its fans, both at home and abroad and, sports teams and organizations can therefore expect even more scrutiny in the years to come. Gambling campaigner, Dr. Noyes, says, ‘The Gambling Commision needs to get a grip of the situation, but so too do the football clubs themselves, who should not be putting short-term marketing profits above the long-term interests of their supporters and the integrity of the sport’.