FA dropping Ladbrokes is just the beginning
A view from Jim Dowling

FA dropping Ladbrokes is just the beginning

How will the FA's decision to drop Ladbrokes impact on the market for betting sponsorship across sport, asks HSE Cake's MD.

Linguist, philosopher, art critic, pedestrian midfielder and now sports sponsorship revolutionary; footballer Joey Barton leaves his imprint on every element of civilisation.

So it's likely football’s bad boy will claim the credit for the FA’s decision to drop its betting partner Ladbrokes.

But this tells only part of the story.

In April this year, former QPR and Newcastle player Barton was banned for 18 months by the FA after he had been found to have made over 1,200 bets on the outcome of football matches.

Barton put the FA’s sponsorship strategy front and centre of the debate. 

"They've given me such a harsh sentence because they want to maintain to the world, to the people who buy TV rights, that this is a very high-integrity game here," he told The Times. People who work for betting companies have told me that's the key issue.

"The FA have no actual interest in [tackling] betting. And they can't solve the problem, especially when they've got Ladbrokes as a partner. Because the players are going, I'm not doing anything wrong."

The quote runs a finger down a long running sore that goes far beyond the FA and time will tell if this is a blip or a trend in the relationship between elite sport and the gambling industry.

Tony Blair’s government opened the floodgates in 2005 when the Gambling Act made betting advertising on television legal for UK and offshore gambling companies. 

At a stroke, a whole new sponsorship was created which bore all the hallmarks of sport’s previous money pit of tobacco. 

A mass of largely undifferentiated brands seeking to use sport’s global media platform to normalise a habit the government can’t or doesn’t want to ban. 

This made for a heady cocktail and advertising spending went up 1400% between 2005 and 2012. 

Today, gambling brands dominate the marketing air, not just during the ad breaks but during the match too. If Ray Winstone's live odds (pictured above) won’t get you then the brands on the players’s shirts might. 

Around half of Premier League teams last season had shirt sponsorship deals with gambling companies; West Ham (Betway), Bournemouth (Mansion Group), West Brom (UK-K8.com), Sunderland (Dafabet), Stoke (Bet365), Swansea (BetEast), Hull (SportPesa), Burnley (Dafabet), Crystal Place (Mansion Group) and Watford (138.com). Below the Premier League, the Sky Bet Championship will be happy to take your attention. 

But the FA is in a different position, one that Joey Barton’s criticism was intended to highlight. It has a broader remit than making money. It is the guardian of the game’s integrity beyond selling the England team and the FA Cup, it’s major commercial properties. 

In this broader context, betting has always been a bad look for federations and governing bodies, and FA chief executive Martin Glenn, formerly of PepsiCo and Walkers Crisps, is very atune to brand perception.

He and Greg Clarke, the chairman, have been public about their reservations about this category and it should be noted that Glenn was talking about this way before Joey Barton hijacked the issue for his own ends.

The broader question is how the FA’s decision will impact on the market for betting sponsorship across sport – the sector generated combined sponsorship revenues of around €550m (£482m) in 2016-17, according to SportBusiness.

And all this is just the end of the beginning. Sport has a track record in selling technological innovation to a mainstream audience. And betting gives generic ‘content’ a hard, thrilling edge. We’re not far from Ray Winstone popping up during the live match, suggesting a cheeky punt on the next corner.

Is the FA’s decision a watershed moment, leading to a purge on the bookies and a huge hole in the sports economy? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Jim Dowling is managing director of HSE Cake, Havas’ sport and entertainment agency in the UK

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