Football: Time to ban betting companies from shirt sponsorship?

By Jonathan Copping, Lawyer, Stone King LLP, London, UK

On 2 July 2020, a House of Lords Select Committee produced a Report that recommended that English Premier League clubs should not be allowed to have betting firms on their football shirts. The cross-party Committee, set up to look at the impact of the UK’s gambling industry, produced a 192-page Report entitled “Gambling Harm – Time for Action” (see https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld5801/ldselect/ldgamb/79/7902.htm).

At paragraph 524 of the Report, the Select Committee, recommends that gambling operators

should no longer be allowed to advertise on the shirts of sports teams or any other part of their kit. There should be no gambling advertising in or near any sports grounds or sports venues, including sports programmes.”

The subsequent paragraph of the Report goes on to state that the recommendation should not take effect for clubs below the Premier League before 2023.

The rationale behind this recommendation appears to be that the Select Committee believes the ban of gambling advertising on Premier League clubs’ football shirts would not unduly harm the clubs, but

it would very probably have a serious effect on smaller clubs; some of those in the EFL [English Football League] might go out of business without this sponsorship if they cannot find alternatives”.

In the 2019-20 season, half of the Premier League clubs and seventeen of the twenty-four Championship clubs were sponsored by betting companies, i.e. the main sponsorship on the front of a football shirt. Since the 2017-18 season, Premier League clubs have been allowed to have sleeve sponsorships. This has led to a number of clubs having sleeve sponsorship from betting companies, albeit, in most instances, the sleeve sponsorship and the front shirt sponsorship being from the same betting company.

The Premier League did not release a statement in response to the Select Committee Report; however, the Football League did release a statement containing the following:

The association between football and the gambling sector is long-standing and the League firmly believes a collaborative, evidence-based approach to preventing gambling harms that is also sympathetic to the economic needs of sport will be of much greater benefit than the blunt instrument of blanket bans.”

The Select Committee was certainly aware of the evidential link between gambling advertising in sport and gambling, which, generally speaking, is a social problem in the UK, and included in its Report the following statement:

It is now accepted that any smoking, even on a small scale, is a risk to health, and tobacco advertising has been prohibited for 15 years. However, the gambling evidence base is less clear-cut, and there have as yet been no sufficiently high-quality studies investigating whether gambling-related harm increases even for small levels of gambling.

The Select Committee has also called for a review of the Gambling Act 2005 in order to make sure that it is fit for the digital age.

Whether the Government prioritises such a review in the light of the current Covid-19 Pandemic is a separate issue and, without the support of a high-quality study investigating whether gambling-related harm increases even for small levels of gambling, the Government may not look at reviewing the legislation any time soon. Notwithstanding the Conservative Party’s manifesto pledge to review the Gambling Act 2005.

We should, therefore, expect to see betting companies displayed on the front of football shirts for a while longer.

Jonathan Copping may be contacted by e-mail at ‘JonathanCopping@stoneking.co.uk’