This season’s Premier League kicks off tonight in the opening match between Manchester United and Leicester, both of whose most prominent sponsors are based in faraway lands.
Manchester United, England’s most successful football team, have the American car brand Chevrolet emblazoned on its chest, while the 2016 champions Leicester are sponsored by King Power, Thailand’s leading retail travel group.
Both are examples of how the massive global popularity of England’s top footballing competition has heralded a radical shift in which companies want to be associated with world-famous clubs and players.
Whereas 20 years ago Premier League sponsorship was dominated by UK and international electronics companies (including the peculiar case of Sanderson Electronics which sponsored two teams), the competition is now dominated by gambling companies.
Back in 1998, not a single Premier League club’s shirt was sponsored by a bookmaker, and the first was not until 2002 when Fulham agreed to promote Betfair.
Since then the casinos and sports betting companies have flocked to football, and the Premier League reached its peak in the 2016/17 season, when 10 out of the 20 teams had a bookmaker or casino’s name featured. This year’s tally of nine does not count Watford sponsor, foreign exchange broker FxPro, although the brand’s services include spread betting on financial markets.
Concern over the dominance of gambling brands in football sponsorship came to a head last year when the Labour party’s deputy leader Tom Watson called for a ban. Watson argued that prevalence of betting brands was fuelling gambling addictions.
However, like Chevrolet and King Power, most of the gambling companies are sponsoring these English teams because the Premier League is a product with global consumer demand. Only Virgin Media, Southampton’s sponsor, stands out for being a UK media owner and advertiser that is primarily concerned with growing its UK market share.
As the Premier League’s global appeal shows no sign of abating, it may only be a change in the law that halts the day when nearly all the elite clubs are promoting a gambling brand.