Those of us of a certain age will remember the problems West Ham had back in September 2008. At the start of that season emblazoned on our shirts were two large letters, those being XL.
Now those letters had nothing to do with the size of the shirt I was wearing in those days, and in fact it’s the same size now but I digress.
Those letters stood for XL Airways, an Icelandic travel company. Just a month into that 2008 season that particular shirt sponsor went bust.
Not only did our team lose around £4 million a year in sponsorship but us fans had to wear a shirt with a big piece of plastic stuck across the shirt hiding the now defunct sponsor. It also meant that West Ham lost a considerable source of revenue, £4 million was huge in those days.
Soon history could be repeating itself for not just us Hammers but also a further seven Premier League teams if it becomes illegal to have a bookies as a shirt sponsor.
There is growing confidence from anti-gambling groups that the Prime Minister will recommend that gambling firms be barred from advertising on football jerseys. It would mean that gambling will follow tobacco as a type of advertising banned from football.
There seems to be a huge amount of support from fellow MPs and it’s been suggested that this ban could happen as early as next season.
In the Premier League, eight of the 20 clubs are sponsored by betting firms – Burnley, Crystal Palace, Fulham, Leeds, Newcastle, Southampton, Wolves and of course West Ham, while in the Championship, which is sponsored by SkyBet, it’s 12 clubs.
Clubs are already struggling from the impact of COVID-19 so this could be yet another significant financial issue for even the most well-off clubs. But the question has to be asked, is this morally the right decision?
Firstly we all know that children’s replica shirts do not have gambling companies as their sponsor, our very own once had the Bobby Moore fund emblazoned on the front and are now blank.
But does advertising gambling organisations have a significant effect on the growing gambling addiction that is increasing in our country?
To answer this question it may be worth making comparisons to that of the tobacco industry who can no longer advertise at any sporting event.
The tobacco ban was a contentious issue. It was already clear that most people actually started smoking between the ages of 15 and 18. Opponents of the ban therefore stated that advertising does not increase the market for tobacco products but merely seeks to influence the brand decision of existing smokers and informed adults.
One cigarette firm stated to the commons health committee that: ‘cigarette advertising does not cause people to take up smoking. Simply put, cigarette advertising has two purposes, to maintain brand loyalty and to encourage smokers to switch brands.’
Anti-smoking groups, however, argued that advertising legitimises smoking and suggested that tobacco companies have deliberately targeted young people in an effort to recruit new customers to replace those who give up or die.
It’s a compelling argument. It is difficult to identify just what impact the removal of advertising has done but it seems that recent figures show that there has been a 7% decline in smoking in this country since the smoking ban, not huge but health wise significant.
Of course the smoking ban also included much more than just advertising at sports events or as team sponsors. As stated already, smoking starts at an early age and there may be a thought that due to age restrictions being later for gambling – 18 while smoking was originally 16 – it would not have a similar impact.
However the rise of online betting has resulted in the younger age group finding ways around the age ban and has raised concerns. A gambling ban on the use of credit cards is already in place. The next step seems to be advertising and this has caused a worry amongst the football executives.
Anti-gambling activists state that the close relationship of football with betting companies has contributed to a rise in gambling addiction and promoting the practice to children.
The NHS currently state that there are 300,000 problem gamblers in England alone and that the problem is only going to get worse. The gambling companies actually have mixed views on a ban on shirt advertising. One such company, the owners of Ladbrokes, even support a ban on shirt sponsorship.
The worry for football clubs is that many particularly in the lower league would struggle without such advertising.
One in two League One clubs are sponsored by a gambling group. Rick Parry, the chairman of the EFL, has warned that a ban on gambling sports sponsorship would be catastrophic for smaller clubs already struggling to survive because of the pandemic.
The Premier League has yet to comment other than to say that a ban would be ‘harder for smaller clubs because it’s easy money’. This expected ban is not new news for clubs and although the pandemic has put a spanner in the works for many, it is something they should already be preparing for the financial impact.
It’s going to happen, and if it helps to reduce gambling addiction then it has to be a good thing.
The ban seems inevitable and like other sports, the big clubs including West Ham will survive. Smaller clubs will struggle but the question remains should they survive at the cost of a person’s mental state?
I will leave you with that thought but I know my answer to that question and it’s a resounding no.