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Where will soccer’s love affair with betting sponsorship go next?

Borussia Dortmund and Benfica battle at Heinz Field in 2018. Photo credit David Hague

There’s no escaping corporate sponsorship in football, basketball, or baseball. Though no-one integrates corporate name-dropping into the fabric of matches quite like America, the close relationship between sports and big business is found throughout the world, including the home of many popular global sports, Britain. The most popular – soccer – is nowadays a financial behemoth swimming in lucrative sponsorship contracts.

Benefactors and sponsorships make the world go round – for the largest and the smallest of businesses. One of the world’s most successful teams, Manchester United, make such a killing from their sponsorship deals that they continue to set new revenue records even as the team continues to play poorly by historical standards, having won only two major trophies since the retirement of their talismanic manager – and occasional Harvard lecturer – Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013. The club in recent times have often been accused of paying attention to matters off-the-field more than on the field. It’s a testament to the strength of United’s brand that they remain perhaps the biggest juggernaut in the professional game, despite their lack of success in the Premier League and Champions League.

The major sponsorship opportunity in soccer is one that’s not found in most American games – the jersey sponsor. Companies pay clubs millions each year to have their logos emblazoned in the middle of their team’s jerseys (or ‘shirts’ in British parlance). That makes sense – British football’s elite soccer competition, the Premier League, estimates they have a cumulative global audience spanning half the global population, with matches broadcast into almost a billion homes across 188 countries last year. For the sponsors of the league’s 20 teams, that is huge exposure, with their logos being displayed by 11 players for 90 minutes towards a transfixed audience.

And no sector pays for that exposure more so than the betting industry – a natural corporate ally of professional sports of course due to proliferation of sports betting throughout the world. With intense competition between betting companies to attract an engaged and lucrative market, special sign-up offers and deals are commonplace. It’s a hallmark of the best betting sites to provide top value on their odds and free bets to lure in new customers and retain their current ones. Remaining in the thoughts and minds of football fans is a key component of successful bookmakers. It’s why they spend a huge amount of money on advertising during Premier League matches, with some even splicing their commercials between the commentator’s breakdown of team news and kick-off.

Of the twenty clubs currently playing in the Premier League, seven have deals with betting companies. Together they account for roughly £46.5m of the £349.1m earned by Premier League clubs from sponsorship deals. Interestingly, clubs such as Wolverhampton Wanderers, Newcastle United, and Fulham are sponsored by East Asian online gambling companies. British soccer courts money from Asia at all opportunities.

With over a billion people a year watching from within the continent, most major teams now routinely fly over to play exhibition matches during the break between domestic seasons.

But there is still new ground to break for betting companies. The highest-ticket deals in the Premier League are still dominated by aerospace, manufacturing, and finance firms, with Manchester United’s £64m from Chevrolet eclipsing the rest. And it is the major teams who win trophies and have the largest global fanbases that pursue deals with these companies rather than betting sites. Moreover, the second-biggest soccer competition in the world, the Champions League (involving teams from throughout Europe), is yet to feature any major teams with betting companies as jersey sponsors.

There have been minor breakthroughs as MarathonBet earned a sponsorship deal on the training jerseys of Manchester City. It follows the trend of Manchester United and Liverpool, who have seen their training wear sponsored by DHL and AXA. City are earning an eight-figure sum from the agreement, matching those of their rivals, while the company have the exposure of being on the training wear of one of the biggest teams in the world.

There will be a huge television audience tuning in to watch the pre-game build-up where City’s players will be donning the gear with the MarathonBet logo. During the game substitutes on the bench will also be visible wearing the logo on their chests. There’s not a huge window for them to be seen compared to the usual jersey sponsorship, but MarathonBet has thought outside the box to break into the elite market of a Champions League outfit.

It raises the question: will betting companies be able to offer the larger eight-figure sums needed to entice the major soccer teams in the future, ensuring their brands are associated with victory in the eyes of half the globe? At the moment it might just be beyond their reach, but there will be a lot of interest in City’s deal with MarathonBet. It may only be a matter of time before another company makes the bold decision to invest the significant sum of £50m to procure a jersey sponsorship of a team of City’s ilk either in England or abroad.

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