With English football facing unprecedented regulatory reform, the English Premier League's (EPL) recent announcement that its clubs have collectively (and voluntarily) agreed to withdraw gambling sponsorship from the front of matchday shirts by the end of the 2025-26 season is another important development within the football industry as well as for the gambling sector.
Background – regulatory reforms
This latest announcement follows consultation between the key stakeholders – the EPL, its clubs and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, in the broader context of the UK Government's ongoing review of the current gambling legislation to ensure that it is "fit for the digital age". The EPL announcement was made shortly before the Government's gambling white paper was finally published in April 2023, following numerous delays over the last few years. Please see here for our summary of the key aspects of the Gambling white paper.
Whilst specific to sponsorship by gambling companies, this announcement swiftly follows the recent publication of the Government's white paper on 'A sustainable future - reforming club football governance' (which we consider and summarise here in greater detail). Additionally, it indicates an increasing willingness by the EPL and its clubs to implement changes voluntarily before any changes are mandated without their input and which may have resulted in a different, possibly more intrusive, outcome (such as, a complete ban on gambling sponsorship).
What are the key changes?
The key change is the withdrawal of gambling sponsorship from the front of EPL club's matchday shirts by the end of the 2025-26 season. This provides clubs with a transitional period until the withdrawal takes effect to ensure that they comply. This was seen as necessary given eight of the 20 current EPL teams are sponsored by gambling brands on the front of their shirts, worth approximately £60 million per year. As a result, it allows existing deals to continue in operation as well as permitting new deals to be put in place, provided that, in each case, such deals expire by the deadline. Further, it gives EPL clubs sufficient lead time to procure new non-gambling front of shirt sponsors after the end of the 2025-26 season.
At present, the change only applies to clubs' front of matchday shirt sponsors, but not to other stands of clubs' sponsorship such as matchday shirt sleeves, training kits and stadium advertising hoardings (whether pitch side or around the stadium). However, the EPL's statement confirms it is working with other sports to develop a new code for responsible gambling sponsorship, the adoption of which is a key proposal in the Gambling white paper. As yet, there are limited details, but the white paper does suggest some examples of principles which might be adopted. These include gambling advertising not being visible from dedicated family areas and a proportion of sponsorship inventory to be dedicated to safer gambling messaging. It also suggests that compliance might be achieved through enforcement by sports governing bodies (on the part of clubs) and licence conditions on the part of gambling operators.
What about the English Football League?
The EPL's ban only impacts on its clubs and not teams in the English Football League (EFL). It seems unlikely that the EFL will follow suit, given its previous public position and the fact that the league itself has been sponsored by a well-known gambling company since 2013. However, clearly, any EFL clubs that are promoted to the EPL will need to comply with the EPL rules by the relevant deadline. They will therefore need to ensure that their contracts with gambling sponsors (whether existing or new) provide them with the necessary flexibility from the end of the 2025-26 season in the event of promotion to the EPL.
What does this mean and what's next?
The Government has already announced far reaching regulatory reforms and interventions into English football (including the creation of an independent regulator). The voluntary ban by the EPL was introduced after considerable pressure from the Government.
Having been a topic of intense debate and discussion in recent years, the EPL's ban appears to be an effort to show that it is (and its clubs are) tackling their perceived reliance on sponsorship from gambling companies to "reduce gambling advertising" and will necessitate a reshaping of their commercial operations.
Whilst time will tell if there will be a significant change in the value clubs can secure for their front of shirt sponsorship, the expectation is that there will be a reduction in this particular sponsorship revenue stream. However, an indirect consequence of this may result in an uplift in other types of sponsorship that is still available to gambling brands, such as LED advertising, sleeve and training kit sponsorship. It should also be noted that the ban is expected to have a greater impact on teams outside of the so-called top six, given they are more reliant on the soon-to-be banned sponsorship category.
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