Business of Sport: A safe bet

7th March 2018

Business of Sport: A safe bet

As the ‘Business of Sport’ series has revealed, Volleyball England is looking to work with commercial partners for some of its key events.

The Marketing and Commercial Group have produced Business Articulation for three competitions it believes are currently the most attractive to sponsors. These documents highlight the benefit and value of these events to a commercial partner. The Business Articulation for the Inter Regional Championships – the biggest junior volleyball competition in the calendar – can be downloaded here. While the Business Articulation for the showpiece event in the indoor season – the National Cup Finals – is also available. The final articulation for the National Volleyball League will be released soon too.

As Volleyball England looks to develop its commerciality, it raises several interesting debates. One of is the question of: should Volleyball England consider working with gambling companies as commercial partners?

In a two-part feature, we’re exploring both sides of the argument with members of the Volleyball England board. In part one, Vice Chair Keith Nicholls made the case against working with betting companies. Now, PR and Communications Director, Simon Griffiths, argues it is something the organisation should certainly consider…

I can tell you exactly when I placed my first bet. I was not quite 13. My family had always enjoyed watching the Grand National so I fancied having a flutter. From my pocket money, I staked a whole 50p each way (plus 10p tax; those were the days!) on Maori Venture. When he surged home in the final furlong to win at odds of 28/1, netting me a cool £18.50, I was ecstatic.

I did not go on to develop a problematic gambling habit. My parents were not castigated as terrible people or inappropriate role models. As far as I can tell, the world continued to spin on its axis.

Years later, I still like a gamble. Along with my friends, I’ll bet on football, horse racing, boxing and cricket. It’s an intrinsic part of our sporting experience – and that’s why I have no problem with betting firms being closely linked with sporting organisations. It’s also why if a betting firm came and offered a significant sum to become an official partner of Volleyball England, I would have no qualms about accepting their money.

There is a natural synergy which exists between sport and gambling which is not present between sport and, for example, tobacco, alcohol or payday loans. Some people argue that this synergy has been artificially manufactured by the betting companies themselves during their recent boom but I disagree.

Horse and greyhound racing have always been betting sports; with the market providing a handy way of articulating each animal’s chances of winning. Boxing has always been heavily entwined with gambling too. Betting in football is hardly new either. The football pools first started in 1923 and at their peak, in 1994 just before the National Lottery began, they could lay claim to 10 million players.

The pools results were read out on Grandstand on a Saturday afternoon. You don’t get much more mainstream than that. There was even a Pools Panel to rule on how any postponed match would most likely have turned out - because heaven forbid that the weather should get in the way of anyone bagging an eight score-draw top dividend!

Aware of the downside

Of course, lives can be affected, ruined or even ended when gambling gets out of hand – just as they can with smoking, booze, drugs, easy credit, sugary foods, fizzy drinks, video games, in-app purchases; the list goes on. It’s always horribly sad.

Information, information and information is where the answer lies. Let people do what they want with their lives but let their choice be informed choices. In this regard, I think the betting industry is actually doing very well in terms of its responsible gambling agenda. Can you think of any other consumer product where the vendor goes to similar lengths to dissuade the purchaser from spending too much?

Gambling does seem to cause a disproportionate amount of hand-wringing and outrage currently. I believe much of this is down to its heavy links to the Premier League, the vast amounts of money involved and the huge amount of TV coverage this grants it – turning the traditional bookmakers into a societal bete noire as far as some commentators are concerned.

In the midst of all this, the National Lottery happily chugs along, racking up around £7bn of sales per year. That’s about 50% of the Gross Gambling Yield of all the other gambling firms put together. This is the acceptable face of UK gambling though, convincing people to keep placing their weekly bets in pursuit of the 45 million to one shot that will change their lives forever.

The most recent Gambling Commission figures show that around 1% of adults are classed as problem gamblers. Set against this, you have 7% of UK adults who drink more than the low-risk guidelines while 16% of us still smoke. Despite this, it’s the gambling firms who find themselves at the centre of the latest nanny state media storm, threatened with – among other things – total advertising and sponsorship bans.

Bizarrely, as long as it never leads to any sort of blanket ban, this collective outrage could be seen as quite productive, obliging bookmakers to take their social responsibility even more seriously. Under constant scrutiny, highly visible and highly regulated – that’s what you want for those industries that promote potentially addictive products and services, isn’t it? Keep it in the light.

When push comes to shove

Returning to my earlier point, if a large bookmaker offered VE thousands of pounds tomorrow to be our main commercial partner, I’d vote yes. Believing there to be a natural synergy and feeling confident in the strength of the corporate responsibility message, I’d vote yes.  And being an arch-pragmatist, desperate to see volleyball grow in this country, I’d vote yes.

Everyone knows that VE’s finances haven’t been especially healthy recently. We’ve battled our way back from the brink but there are still gut-wrenchingly tough decisions being made on where we can deploy our limited resources. Needless to say, we would certainly welcome any extra injections of capital to help us fund those programmes which we otherwise won’t be able to afford. We’ve also stated our intention to reduce our reliance on Sport England funding. To achieve this, I’d happily take a bookmaker’s offer of support, should one be forthcoming.

My only reservation would be the work we’d need to put in on the regulation side. If our Super 8 matches, for example, became regularly promoted betting opportunities, we’d need programmes and processes in place to combat any fears around corruption and collusion. That’s no bad thing to have anyway – and a small price to pay for bringing in some much-needed investment.

The double standard

I don’t buy the argument that it’s wrong for a governing body to help promote gambling while at the same time meting out penalties to players who break the rules and gamble inappropriately. The Joey Barton argument that it’s hypocritical for the Football Association to ban him for breaking betting rules while at the same time endorsing gambling doesn’t work for me. For an educated man, surrounded by information on what’s appropriate for someone in his position and yet still prepared to jeopardise the privileged position he’s in, that’s just a poor attempt at shifting the blame.

Yet such is the sensitivity around the topic that the FA nevertheless terminated its relationship with Ladbrokes last year. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the football world, the Football League (responsible, admittedly, for running a competition, not monitoring the behaviour of the players) extends its contract with Sky Bet, raking in millions of pounds for a deal that will eventually run till 2024.

All that tells me is that the FA made a PR-related decision to terminate, for fear of being seen as poacher and gamekeeper and aware of how its public profile certainly needs a bit of restorative work. If it weren’t for that, I’m sure they would still be one of the many sporting bodies happy to take the bookmakers’ shilling, well aware of the huge commercial value to be had from partnering with one of the country’s biggest boom industries.

The bookies won’t disappear any time soon. This is their moment. Desperate to see volleyball grow in this country – and confident that any partnership could be used to deliver positive outcomes across multiple cash-strapped programmes – I’d hate to see us on the outside, looking in. While I understand the moral dilemma, I think we risk blowing out of all proportion the perceived negative impact of such a partnership and risk missing out on all the potential benefits.

Business of Sport: A safe bet