When news broke on Thursday that Britain’s biggest gambling companies had agreed to a ‘whistle-to-whistle’ ban on television advertising, it sounded like a step in the right direction.
But experts in the betting industry, as well as senior figures in broadcasting and football sponsorship, remain unconvinced that the voluntary move, clearly made in response to government pressure, will have much impact.
Premier League clubs might actually profit from such a ban, according to one commercial director working in top-flight English football.
With the exception of Brighton, all Premier League clubs have a gambling partner. Indeed, some have as many as five, and the money they earn from such partnerships forms a significant percentage of their revenue.
For a club like Manchester United, gambling revenue can be worth as much as £20million a year. For the smaller clubs it might be between £5m and £10m.
‘But if your revenue is £200m a year that’s still a significant amount,’ said one source who works as a commercial director in the Premier League. ‘And if there was a blanket ban on all gambling advertising like we’ve just seen in Italy, that could hurt even if it’s only in the short term.
‘However, clubs will look at today’s developments and possibly see a chance to make more money. Because if bookmakers can no longer advertise on television, that potentially makes our advertising media at matches more valuable. Could clubs now charge more for the LED perimeter screens and other forms of gambling advertising at the game?’
It is unlikely to concern the gambling industry. ‘Bookmakers spend five to six times more on digital advertising than they do on television advertising, so I suspect the net impact of this will be no change,’ said one betting expert who has worked in the gambling industry for more than 20 years.
‘And if they can’t dedicate a proportion of their advertising spend to television during matches, you can be sure they will spend it elsewhere. If that means paying more to the clubs, so be it. It’s just a different way of skinning a cat.’
Political as well as public pressure has been mounting, not least after last summer’s World Cup when it emerged that British World Cup viewers had to endure almost 90 minutes of betting adverts during the tournament, prompting particular concerns about children being exposed. The number of children with a gambling problem has quadrupled in this country in the last two years.
Australia and Italy have already decided that enough is enough. In July the Italian government approved a ban on all advertisements for gambling, including on TV, radio, and online, with a threat of heavy fines.
And it is a policy that has been extended to sports clubs, who are no longer allowed to sign sponsorship or promotion deals with gambling companies.
Such measures have not gone unnoticed in the UK gambling industry and clearly bookmakers hope the initiative announced on Thursday, one that is expected to be ratified when the five major gambling associations meet next week, will appease those calling for change. It is understood the proposal is for the ban to be in place for the start of next season.
Clearly not everyone is sold on the idea, however. Marc Etches, the CEO of GambleAware, echoed our betting industry expert when he too said that ‘the marketing spend online is five times the amount spent on television’. But Etches also made the point that with so many children having access to mobile phones and tablets, the internet is as serious a concern as television.
On Thursday night it remained unclear where the boundaries will be set. Sky’s Monday Night Football and much of the football output from BT Sport is sponsored by bet365. Judging by Thursday’s announcements, that is unlikely to be affected.
Another expert believes a ban on TV advertising could favour the more established bookmakers. ‘If you’ve already got a major portion of the market share a ceasefire can only be a good thing,’ he said. ‘How do you persuade people to drink something other than Pepsi or Coke if you can’t advertise your own cola?’
The worry for bookmakers is that this measure is not seen as a big enough step and there is pressure for a ban similar to that on tobacco advertising in sports such as Formula One and snooker.
Much like the broadcasters, the sports would continue to prosper. Someone else will look to occupy the advertising space and someone will want to sponsor the football club.
But the gambling industry loves football. ‘It’s the golden ticket,’ said a gambling expert. ‘Betting on horseracing is in managed decline. But football is all about access to those 20-something males.
‘And it’s the sheer amount of things you can bet on. Most of the business is done before the game, which is another reason why this ban on in-game betting won’t matter too much. But I was watching the Manchester United game on Wednesday and was offered the chance to bet on the number of red cards during the second half.
‘Even if that’s not being offered to you on TV, it will still be there on the app on your phone.’