The moral sponsor high ground

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Aston Villa last week announced two new major sponsorship partners whose company logo’s will adorn the newly designed Kappa kits set to be unveiled next month. W88 is the club’s new principal partner and their brand will feature prominently in the middle of the shirt. BR88 also became the club’s first ever sleeve sponsor.

Both of these firms are online gambling businesses. The announcement of our new partners has seen the club come under some criticism from some supporters for promoting companies who operate in a sector which many feels have potentially damaging consequences for their customers.

No strangers

Unibet had a sponsor deal with VillaThe gambling industry is absolutely booming right now and has been growing exponentially for a number of years. Villa are no strangers in dancing with this particular devil, with previous sponsors including Genting Casinos, Dafabet, Unibet and 32Red, twice.

Clearly, this isn’t a new concern that some supporters have raised. But with a seemingly growing number of fans set to boycott buying a shirt due to the choice of sponsors, it is worth asking the question. Should we be sourcing alternative revenue streams, and should the club have a moral compass which it should be doing a better job of following?

This is probably a good moment to state that personally, I have no real issue with the club dipping its toe into the profitable, but murky waters that these firms bathe in. But I can understand why some people do. The club’s previous good deeds may have a lot to do with it.

Goodwill

The goodwill that Villa showed towards Acorns Children’s Hospice Trust back in 2008 was something that everyone connected with the club was extremely proud of. Randy Lerner obviously left the club on its knees in the end, but the gesture on his behalf to forgo shirt sponsorship money and promote such a worthwhile cause was something unprecedented before or, indeed since in the Premier League.

Acorns received huge exposure that it would never have received otherwise, and the club itself was commended universally for taking such a ground-breaking approach to supporting charities. But this model is unfortunately simply not sustainable in the modern game.

Qatar Airlines sponsored BarcelonaEven a giant of the game such as Barcelona, with all of their revenue streams and income, and despite choosing never to have a paid shirt sponsor in their entire history, did not continue to promote UNICEF as their main shirt sponsor (an agreement which actually saw Barca pay the charity £1.5 million a year).

They eventually took up a £25 million a year deal with Qatar Airways instead in 2011. That in itself highlights just how important these deals are to clubs now.

Record-breaking

Whilst no specifics of the deals that Villa have made have been made public, the club’s Chief Commercial Officer, Nicola Ibbotson stated that it was a ‘record-breaking’ deal for us. From what I could find out, Villa’s £8 million a year agreement with Genting Casinos was our biggest ever deal previously. That was back in 2011, so it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that if this deal is bigger than that, then W88 will be paying in the region of £9 million or £10 million a year to be splashed across our shirts.

Whilst that fee may be dwarfed by the likes of the big boys in the league who can easily command north of £30 million per year for their agreements. It still represents a significant portion of our income and will actually represent one of the largest deals in the league.

For a club with ambitions of trying to not only establish themselves in the Premier League but to make inroads into being competitive, we simply cannot afford to pass up opportunities to take the biggest slice of the sponsorship pie as possible.

Eight of the twenty Premier League teams last season had sponsors that were betting firms. It is a market where there is a huge amount of money and with many of the firms being based in Asia. The English market is of course where these businesses are trying to grow. The Premier League is a huge advert for these businesses. And these firms are willing to pay for the privilege.

The moral side

As for the moral side of things, yes, gambling can ruin lives. The argument that we are promoting a firm that will potentially be responsible for creating addiction is of course not ideal.

But at the same time, I would argue about the degree of impact that a shirt sponsor actually has. For example, who knew that Leicester City’s sponsors, King Power, was a Thai Duty-Free shop? I had no idea until researching this piece. I’d always presumed it was some sort of energy firm! Similarly, W88, our new sponsors who were on Wolves’ shirt last year, always looked like some sort of insurance firm to me.

Focusing on the gambling firms that other clubs promoted last season for a moment, the likes of ManBetX, (Crystal Palace) Laba360 (Burnley) and OPE sports (Huddersfield) were all just nothing more than a logo to me.

I personally love a bet, and not once have I seen their logo’s and thought about logging on to their sites to give my business to. I’m sure some have of course. But I bet (no pun intended) the footfall traffic direct from seeing a shirt sponsor is fairly minimal.

I think that is an important point. For the most part, the logo’s just become part of the kit design to most people. Fans of clubs just want the shirt to look good, and that includes the sponsor. I had a much bigger problem with the clash of the red background of our Muller sponsorship on our claret shirts that I’ve ever had with the nature of a firm’s business sector.

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Shirt sponsors

Hasn’t there always been questionable shirt sponsors anyway? As a kid, I used to have a collection of shirts from other clubs. In the ’90s especially, it seemed that every other club had a beer brand as their sponsor. McEwan’s Lager. Carlsberg. Coors. Holsten. Newcastle Brown Ale. I wore kits with them all emblazoned upon my chest. It didn’t turn me, or I suspect anyone else, into a raging alcoholic. Especially at that age, it was always just about the kit design and the sponsor was just part of that.

And maybe that’s the thing. That individuals who have addictions and issues will have those problems regardless of what is on a football shirt. Are we being over sensitive and just being moralistic for effect?

Yes, you can argue that we shouldn’t be promoting a firm that potentially can ruin lives. You can twist that logic to some of our more innocent past sponsors. Maybe we shouldn’t have had car manufacturer Rover on our shirts. After all, there was a clear potential for a road traffic accident involving their vehicles. Not to mention the environmental risks.  NTL? We shouldn’t have been promoting a telecommunications firm that provides cable TV services as our kids shouldn’t be cooped up watching so much TV all the time and causing them to get fat.

Business is business

I understand the opposition, and I respect the moral argument. But for me, business is business. Especially at this crucial period in the club’s history. We need to eek out every money making opportunity we can and if the highest bidder to adorn our shirt is a gambling firm, then so be it.

I don’t believe it will create any more addictions than the business has to endure as it is. I certainly don’t believe that there are kids who will be enticed into logging on because of it. The sector will always have its casualties, unfortunately. So will the alcohol sector but so will other seemingly more innocent business sectors too.

As always, education of the potential pitfalls of things such as gambling are crucial. I’m not sure that boycotting a football shirt will make much of a difference.

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I'm Alex Othon. I'm 36, a London based Brummie, and a realistic Villa fan. My first game was at Villa Park in 1992 against Crystal Palace. No one was available to take me except my extremely reluctant older sister. We won 3-0, and they had us hooked from that point onwards. Follow me on Twitter @lovespud83 and thanks for reading my articles and leaving any comments - always much appreciated!

1 COMMENT

  1. A fair article and I agree that in the bigger picture us having another gambling sponsor probably won’t affect peoples gambling addictions in any meaningful way, that problem is much deeper than some exposure on a football shirt can affect much. But its all about the money now, most of it which ends up in the hands of players and agents ect, inflating transfer money and wages even more. So from that point of view I’d love for my club to have more values in mind when finding its partners. Also, while losing cash with Acorns (or similar) as a sponsor it’s difficult to value the media attention and goodwill we would’ve got from such a deal. We would stand out in a very different and positive way, instead we now have Wolves sponsor from last season and one of many gambling sponsors. Zzzz

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