It has been a tough 18 months for the football industry. Club finances have taken a battering thanks to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. With unrestricted fan access to grounds for the 2021/2022 season, the light is at the end of the tunnel: money should start flowing in again via gate receipts and other customary match day revenue streams such as food, drink and club merchandise sales.
Sponsorship revenue also took a hit during the pandemic, and hopefully this will also bounce back. However, two major industry sectors that spend big on sports sponsorship are high energy foods and drinks brands and betting companies. Both these sectors are facing potentially ‘bumpy’ futures in terms of sports sponsorship. We have already discussed the potential effect of the new HFSS restrictions on sports sponsorship here, and the review of the Gambling Act 2005 potentially poses regulatory changes for sponsorship in the latter sector too. In this context, it is worth having a look at a recent development concerning sponsorship by betting companies in Italy, which may (or may not) have an impact on how the UK approaches its review of the Gambling Act 2005 in respect of sponsorship by betting companies.
As a refresher of the position in Italy, the ‘Dignity Decree’ prohibits:
- any form of advertising relating to betting and games with cash winnings as well as gambling;
- the sponsorship of events, activities, programs, products or services by betting and gaming companies; and
- all other forms of communication with a promotional content, which are related to betting and other forms of games with cash winnings as well as gambling.
This blanket ban has had a particular effect on football clubs within Serie A (the top Italian football division). The Italian Football Federation (FIGC) has recently highlighted the severe impact of the ban and has called for a temporary lifting of the ban, together with the implementation of a levy of 1% on sports betting in Italy, to help football clubs replenish pandemic stricken coffers. It should be noted, however, that the ban doesn't prevent clubs from doing deals covering overseas markets only - see for instance, Juventus’ partnership with 10Bet and most recently, AC Milan’s partnership with HappyBet which will focus on the German and Austrian markets utilising virtual advertising technology. (For more information on virtual advertising and the regulatory considerations see the White Paper we published with Supponor last year here.)
Will the FIGC’s concerns effect thinking in the UK?
As it stands, in the UK there is no equivalent ban on football clubs having betting companies as shirt sponsors or having ‘Official Betting Partners’. However, there have been calls for stricter regulations to curb the prevalence of betting companies involved in sports. In July 2020, the Select Committee on the Social and Economic Impact of the Gambling Industry highlighted it would be “very beneficial” to ban sponsorship of sports kits and the advertising of gambling near sports grounds. While a voluntary ‘whistle-to whistle’ ban on TV ads was implemented in the UK in 2019, the Select Committee noted the “very limited” impact of this ban due to the high visibility of betting companies during the matches themselves via shirt sponsorship and in-stadia advertising. (The whistle-to-whistle ban prevents TV ads for gambling around sports events (excluding horse and greyhound racing), televised before the 9pm watershed for a period beginning five minutes before the start of the event and finishing five minutes after the event has ended).
Whether or not the UK takes a more hard-line approach akin to Italy remains to be seen. The impact of Italy’s blanket ban and the recent calls to reverse the ban will not have been missed by those in the industry or government. If a blanket ban approach is recommended by the government’s review of the Gambling Act 2005, and implemented, we can expect a similar reaction to that in Italy. It will ‘odds-on’ cause tension with many football clubs (and sports rightsholders in general) who rely on sponsorship revenue from betting companies. It may also trigger more demands for a levy on all sports betting to be returned to sport, something that the gambling industry would no doubt resist.
We are at a crossroads; we must act quickly to prevent the professional football crisis from obliging the clubs to block their activity, thus bringing the entire sports sector to its knees (FIGC president Gabriele Gravina)