Business of sport: Take a gamble?

4th March 2018

Business of sport: Take a gamble?

As Volleyball England looks to develop its commerciality, this week saw the release of a Business Articulation for the Inter Regional Championships. The document explains to companies why it would be worth becoming a commercial partner of the event.

As revealed in the first piece of our ‘Business of Sport’ series, the Business Articulation is all part of the Marketing and Commercial Work Group’s aim to develop sponsorship packages for what it considers Volleyball England’s most appealing events to potential sponsors.

With the Business Articulations for the other events – the National Cup Finals and the National Volleyball League – due for release shortly, this latest piece in the series looks at a key question the release of the articulations raises: should Volleyball England consider working with gambling and betting companies as commercial partners?

In a two-part feature, we hear both sides of the argument as two Volleyball England board members take up the cases for and against. In the first piece, Vice Chair Keith Nicholls explains why he believes volleyball should resist working with betting companies…

If a company associated with the betting and gaming industry offers Volleyball England sponsorship, how should we respond? Gladly take the money without hesitation because we desperately need to improve our finances? Or, consider the wider picture of the responsibilities we have to the image and ethics of our sport, and those who play it?

Competitive sport goes back through history – a compelling range of physical challenges between individuals or teams under agreed rules of play. A governing body codified the rules of a sport, maintained the rules and promoted the sport for its own sake and not for commercial gain. Change is inevitable, but surely the core ethical values of volleyball, and sport in general, should be maintained?

Over the years at Annual General Meetings (AGM), members voted not to accept sponsorship from tobacco and alcohol companies. They felt that using our sport to promote unhealthy products at the expense of our role of encouraging participation in an activity that could improve health and other important social skills, was not the right path to follow.

Of course, many would say if it is OK for British sport to be funded via the National Lottery, why shouldn’t other forms of gambling be acceptable? Set up, idealistically, by John Major to support activities and projects that could not be funded out of existing government funding streams, the Lottery soon changed to be a way for Government to reduce its contribution to sport. In the last five years, the Government has reduced its contribution to Sport England from 48% to only 25% of the total grant. The rest has been drawn from the Lottery funding that was designed to be additional and not replacement funding.

The odds of winning are not good, 1 in 45million for the jackpot and 1 in 9 to win anything. Not really in the same league as the usual betting opportunities and probably why funding to the good causes dropped 17% last year. Despite the ‘misuse’ of the Lottery income by government, there is a moral case for the Lottery that I do not think can be shared by the rest of the gaming industry.

Recent years have seen a massive investment by the gaming industry in sports sponsorship. This is mainly in those sports that achieve high media coverage. 50% of the Premier League football clubs have betting companies as shirt sponsors, in deals worth £47m. This is not philanthropy, companies expect to improve the credibility and awareness of their brand by associating with something else that is popular and respected.

The sheer volume of gambling adverts around live sport is huge. The industry has spent a total of £1.4bn on advertising since 2012. Of that, £430m has been spent on sports gambling advertising. A study of three episodes of the BBC’s Match of the Day, found that gambling logos or branding appeared on screen for between 71% and 89% of the show’s running time.

The Gambling Commission Report in 2017 says there are more than 400,000 problem gamblers – a figure that has grown by a third in three years. These are people who suffer from an urge to gamble continuously, despite risks to jobs and families.

The report shows the public is starting to catch on: 69% think gambling is a risk to family life; 78% fear there are too many opportunities to do it. And those who think the practice should be discouraged rose from 36% in 2010 to 55% in 2016; 11% of 11-16-year olds have bet with in-game items when playing computer or app-based games indicating a worrying acceptance of betting by young people – an alarming trend.

The association of a healthy activity, such as sport, with gambling obscures the social health risks while at the same time promoting betting. The FA fined Joey Barton for betting on football matches. Quite rightly, he accused the FA of hypocrisy as they accepted sponsorship from Ladbrokes.

The Football Association terminated its contract with Ladbrokes over the summer after deciding it was ‘inappropriate’ to partner with them. The FA also prohibits under-18 teams from wearing clothing which “displays any reference whatsoever to a product, service or other activity which is considered...detrimental to the welfare, health or general interest of young persons”.

Alcohol and tobacco sponsorship of sport is not allowed but currently betting is. Does the absence of a legal barrier to product endorsement make it acceptable? If Volleyball England truly believes in its values, then there surely is a conflict of interest if it endorses a product that has the potential to cause, or may be associated with, physical or social harm?

We must consider this question in the context of the sporting as well as social environment.

“There is something rotten in the state of sport” to paraphrase Hamlet. After 50 years working professionally in sport as a teacher, lecturer, player, coach, and administrator I have never known the credibility of sport to be so challenged. Allegations of corruption in the IOC, FIFA, and other international bodies shame sport. The leadership one should expect from the international guardians of sport is sadly lacking.

In the UK, we have not seen the same corruption, but there is a growing division between sport that is played at amateur level and sport played professionally, which is now better described as sport entertainment. The pursuit of money overrides everything. Many sports are turning into nothing, but businesses designed to maximise income for owners and stakeholders.

Gambling is a severe problem that must be addressed. As a sport with values and concern for the individual, we should not be tempted into taking a short-term monetary view. Volleyball England is a small organisation and our refusing sponsorship will not have a major impact on the growth of gambling. The impact of the money on our sport would be transitory but the impact on the perception of our sport would be long term.

Business of sport: Take a gamble?