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Opinion: Is there a better way than betting for clubs like Sunderland AFC?

Sports business academic Neil Graney looks at the ethics of Sunderland’s new principal partnership with an online gambling firm.

Photo by Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images

Just over a week ago, I wrote a piece on the need for Sunderland AFC to start rebuilding the relationship with its most loyal fans. I also highlighted how COVID-19 and the cost-of-living crisis were both having a crippling effect on people in the region, with a particular focus on Surroundings – where, consumers place emphasis on Equality, Ethics, Localism, and Sustainability.

Yesterday, Sunderland announced another principal sponsorship with a gambling firm. I say another, given previous relationships with Tombola and BetDaq.

Much has been written about sport and its relationship with companies and brands. The ’80s and ‘90’s saw the rise and fall of tobacco advertising in sport, I still have vivid memories of Camel and Marlboro in Formula 1. I also recall cricket’s B&H Cup. I’t mad just reading that back - how prosperous that would be now.

The vividness of these memories of sponsorship 30-odd years ago highlights how powerful that advertising can be. The ‘90s and early 2000s saw the rise of alcohol sponsorship in sport; Liverpool’s Carlsberg sponsorship, another vivid memory, the Carling Cup and the FA Cup emblazoned by Budweiser, more recently.

On a global scale, Budweiser, etc., continue to be involved in the world's biggest sporting events – strategically, why wouldn’t they. The key demographic of Budweiser is sports fans, whether corporate or individual. The sponsorship fit makes perfect sense. The issue here, is to do with ethics.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One - Play Off - Final - Wembley Stadium
Alcohol and gambling...
Photo by Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images

Ethical consumption is a key trend driver in many markets. For example, as consumers, we care more about environmental impacts, the role of supply chains, and the welfare of people within those supply chains.

Of course, as consumers, we can often drive unethical production due to our unethical consumption. Think fast fashion, binge drinking, illegal streaming of music and sport events, and so on.

So, ethics in consumption is a double-edged sword. Why would producers and brands be more ethical, when consumers aren’t ethical themselves? Ethical practice is more expensive, green marketing (promoting ethical practice) is also expensive and isn’t product specific – so brands do not always bother if it doesn’t produce desired economic and strategic outcomes.

In business terms, ethics fall under corporate social responsibility (CSR) – visit any large corporation, or indeed SME, and you will find content on their social values and subsequent practice(s). The academic discourse around CSR highlights some key arguments for discussion and research:

1) CSR as an ever-changing concept, and there is difficulty in measuring outcomes.

2) Investment and Return on Investment (ROI) into CSR and related practices, and,

3) An organisations real commitment to real CSR, its stakeholders and communities.

In markets where relationships with consumers are increasingly important, we have seen a shift from CSR to CSV (creation of shared value). Where the organisation creates opportunities for consumers to contribute to the product and see tangible benefits from the creation of shared value – sometimes tangible, sometimes not.

Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 1st Leg Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

I say this with gritted teeth, but the seat change at the Stadium of Light, is a perfect, unique example. It saved the club money, solved a longstanding problem, improved the stadium, and increased community and pride in the volunteer army that took part.

Who has an Apple watch? It’s a global example of creating shard value. As consumers, we get to track lots of useful information about our active participation. It provides insight, and motivation, we get fitter, and healthier. Apple (and its partners) get a truckload of information about our daily routines. The value is created all around.

Tobacco and alcohol sponsorship was a global, industry-wide problem – the gambling industry is essentially the established new social deviance on the block. Whilst government policy, and more ethical practice in sport has led to bans or restrictions on advertising tobacco and alcohol brands in sport, the latter still has a substantial presence within a match day experience.

I need to point out, to be clear, that this is an industry problem, not exclusively a Sunderland problem.

By the time I grew up in the 1980’s, Sunderland had lost its Bank of England tagline, and was known as ‘the family club’ or ‘caring club’ – as a kid, another vivid memory - but too young at to actually understand, or challenge what that meant.

However, with regular attendances of 14-18k at Roker Park, it made me feel part of a family, despite the mediocrity of the football, I knew the club cared.

GambleAware Launch The No BetInn Pub For Liverpool v Chelsea Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images for GambleAware

Post-1992, the inception of Premier League created engineered capitalism that changed the football landscape forever, particularly in business and financial terms. Fast forward, and despite the global economic crisis of 2007-2008, and more recently COVID-19, football in the UK has continued to grow and generate astronomical amounts of money.

Increased foreign ownership highlights its appeal, and the recent sale of Chelsea demonstrates that even Britain’s richest billionaires are not seen as preferred buyers’ – whilst let’s not ever forget the sport washing efforts in NE1 were supported by local Labour MPs and continue to be lapped up by NUFC supporters and journalists alike.

A Saudi-themed away kit and its first PIF-backed sponsor has followed more recently. PIF, let’s remember, has nothing to do with the Saudi Government.

So, back to my comment on ethical practice, and why organisations don’t always embrace it, implement it, or actually care about it, even if they say they do. Specifically, does Sunderland AFC care about the impact of gambling within its supporter group? Does Sunderland AFC care about the most vulnerable within its community?

Seven months on from the club’s orchestrated efforts to support Roker Report’s Soup Kitchen appeal, the club has appointed a gambling firm as its principal shirt sponsor. From highlighting the plight of the city’s most vulnerable, to striking a partnership with a company, which will target the city’s most vulnerable.

Again, all betting firms do it, this isn’t simply a Sunderland problem, but it does suggest Sunderland don’t really care.

For decades, academic studies have investigated the impact of gambling sponsorship within football and other sports. Academic systematic reviews, papers that review historical studies on the same issue, continue to identify key outcomes.

  1. A correlation between marketing and consumption in regard to attitudes, intentions, and behaviours between gambling firms and supporters – not surprising, I know.
  2. A correlation between repetitive advertising and increases in problematic compulsive gambling – think in-play betting and Ray Winstone appearing around every possible corner.
  3. A correlation between marketing and its impact on those most vulnerable – a recent study stated “This relationship appears to be the strongest among high-risk problem gamblers”
  4. A correlation between gambling behaviours and new direct marketing communications – incentives, free bets, direct messaging

In a different study by scholars at Stirling university, focusing on the impact of COVID-19 and sports gambling – findings were damning and further highlighted the relationship between gambling advertising and its impact upon society’s most vulnerable. These groups have been made more vulnerable by the direct impacts of a global pandemic and disposable income.

The study found that:

Marketing was (also) successful in instigating behavioural response among those gambling at higher risk... the data suggests that marketing communications may have a disproportionate behavioural impact on those who are already moderate or problem gamblers

This is consistent with the systematic review above. It goes on:

Those experiencing gambling problems were three times more likely as those experiencing no problems to report that the amount of gambling advertising they saw, and the amount of direct marketing they received from gambling operators, increased during the initial Covid-19 lockdown

In a final study, focusing on the impact of gambling advertising on children found that despite UK law prohibiting direct marketing of gambling to children, its impact was telling:

Gambling logos occur frequently in football-related products and media consumed by children... a single gambling logo on a player’s shirt is refracted many times through collectable cards, football magazines, and the mediatized ‘play’ of a child fan’s world

I’d argue this is akin to the way tobacco and alcohol brands appeared in the same positions previously. So, before entering this principal partnership, has Sunderland AFC considered all these social issues?

Did they consider their most vulnerable supporters, do they worry about the children who support the club, who are and will now be further subjected to advertising?

It’s likely, that Sunderland AFC has entered a principal shirt sponsorship deal with a company that offered the best or most rewarding financial terms. The club believes they can best benefit financially from the partnership, compared to a non-gambling firm. If this isn’t the case and they wish to set the record straight, it would be refreshing to hear from the club.

What does it mean from a supporter’s viewpoint?

Firstly, Some, probably the minority, will not be comfortable with another gambling company being the principal sponsor. Secondly, kid’s shirts will be plain and bland, but still £40 – unless the club has a more ethical partnership for the kids’ shirts. Thirdly, the whole club, and fan base are now susceptible to criticism from the wider footballing public, and rightly so. And finally, fans will see an increase in direct advertising and messaging, encouraging us to gamble through our new principal sponsor.

Sunderland v MK Dons - Sky Bet League 1 Photo by Steven Hadlow/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Research also tells us Sunderland’s players, and wider staff will be more susceptible to gambling problems – A recent study evidenced a correlation between gambling sponsorship and gambling problems for athletes / employees, who regularly consumed direct messaging and advertising from gambling firms who were club partners.

Some fantastic news to finish, as the new principal partner, SpreadEx will donate £100 to Sunderland’s appointed charities for every home goal scored in the 2022-23 season.

On last season’s tally, £4,900 would be making its way to good causes, or 14.3% of the £70,105 raised by Sunderland supporters in the 2021/22 Soup Kitchen appeal. Spreadex made profits of £19.1m last year, despite the impact of COVID, and their goals scheme equates to 0.00025% of their £19.1m profits the previous year.

Roker Report is a volunteer-run fanzine by people who were born here and care about people in the area. I will let you decide which is uncommitted CSR bullshit, and which is the true creation of shared value for Sunderland fans and its community.

Some will question whether anyone really cares who the shirt sponsor is. Some will say there’s more unethical stuff going on in the world.

But I’d encourage you to think of the individual Sunderland fans and their families who are most vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19, those who are in the lowest socio-economic groups, those who are targeted most by gambling firms.

People lose their lives due to addiction – tobacco, alcohol, gambling. Whereas tobacco and alcohol addiction lead to physical ill-health, gambling is psychological, and those psychological problems sometimes begin and are often a result of marketing efforts – born from the types of partnerships announced today.


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