This is almost always controversy in football of one sort or another and it is not uncommon for such controversy to involve gambling. Whether it is a professional footballer who has broken the stringent rules by placing bets on the beautiful game (yes Ivan, we’re looking at you!), or the issue of young football fans being exposed to gambling adverts, there is regularly reference to gambling-related stories in the football pages of newspapers and on websites.
Recently, one such story has revolved around the Asian gambling firm BK8, and in this article, we’ll explain what it’s all about. As we’ll discover, it revolves around Aston Villa’s decision to sign a shirt sponsorship deal with the company. But before we delve into the details of that deal (and others), we’ll first go into the basics of who BK8 are. Then we’ll explain why they are seen as controversial and how that issue has affected football clubs in the Premier League and EFL, and their fans.
Who Are BK8?
BK8 are an online betting and casino firm that originated in 2014 in “Asia”, as most news outlet rather vaguely explain. Based in Malta, though with offices in Curacao, Cambodia, and the Philippines, they have a gambling license issued by the UK Gambling Commission (a pre-requisite for accepting UK customers). BK8 work in partnership with TGP Europe Ltd, which provides their betting software and other services.
In the words of the BK8 themselves:
Bk8 is a global betting brand that brings gaming to a new level with top Slots and Casino games and a Sportsbook with 1000’s of daily betting markets offering the best odds in the industry. From pre-match to live in-play betting on all the top European football leagues, including the English Premier League.
Since their earliest days, BK8 have attempted to attract customers by associating themselves with various sports clubs and stars through a series of sponsorship deals. At the time of writing, they are the “official global partner” of Huddersfield Town FC and the “Asian betting sponsor” of Crystal Palace. In the past, they have had the likes of England and Chelsea star, John Terry, and Netherlands and former Arsenal and Man United striker, Robin van Persie.
In summary, BK8 appear to be rather similar to the hundreds of other betting firms that are available for UK-based punters who want to place bets on football or other things. So, why is there any controversy about them?
Why Are BK8 So Controversial?
In January 2023, Aston Villa signed a three-year sponsorship deal with BK8, despite mounting pressure for football teams to move away from sponsorship deals with gambling firms. Indeed, many Villa fans and anti-gambling campaigners were dismayed by the announcement.
There are many who would happily see gambling sponsorship eradicated from football altogether, but it was not simply that BK8 are a gambling company that angered many Villa fans. Instead, it was rather their history of somewhat distasteful (to put it politely) marketing techniques. To understand that, we need to see what happened when BK8 were a sponsor of Norwich City.
What Happened with Norwich & BK8?
Back in 2021, Norwich City came under fire from their own fans after signing a sponsorship deal with BK8, with critics pointing towards BK8’s use of scantily clad female models in their marketing campaigns as sexist and degrading. Those against the deal also highlighted a YouTube campaign run by BK8 that featured models simulating sex acts on sausages.
Given that Norwich City prides itself on having an “ethos centred around community and continuing to inspire and support Norfolk and the surrounding areas”, it wasn’t really a good look. To their credit, the Canaries apologised to fans and ripped up the deal and currently they are sponsored by the car manufacturer Lotus. A rare example of fan power winning the day.
Back to Villa, though, and the club appeared to have no qualms about signing a three-year deal with BK8, with the club telling disgruntled fans that they had done “extensive due diligence” on the betting firm. Chief executive, Christian Purslow, suggested that BK8 would “align with the club’s ethics and values” and that “the commercial reality is that to teams outside the top six, such sponsors offer clubs twice as much financially as non-gambling companies”. In other words, money doesn’t so much talk, as shout.
Overall though, given the general negative feeling towards the deal expressed by Aston Villa’s Fan Consultation Group, it seems rather a strange decision. It was also vilified by members of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Gambling Related Harm, who are due to report soon with recommendations to tighten up regulations. One member, the former Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, suggested: “This is a very ill-judged move – particularly in the current context of clubs increasingly rejecting ties with gambling companies given the scale of harm they cause”. And various campaigners have been lining up to castigate Villa’s rather “tone-deaf” decision.
Could Football Do Without Gambling Sponsorship?
Football has long been more of a business than a sport, and sponsorship deals are one of the best ways football clubs can raise the large amounts of cash they need to compete in the upper echelons of the game. But with more than 700 gambling logos appearing in the average televised Premier League match (according to campaign group, The Big Step), many fear things have gone too far.
Given that in 2020, half of all Premier League clubs and 17 out of 24 Championship clubs had at least some form of sponsorship deal with gambling firms, it is clear there is a symbiotic relationship that will be hard to break. If indeed it is something that is deemed necessary to break.
As things stand, it appears unlikely the government will legislate to ban gambling sponsorship in football (or other sports), although such a move would not be unprecedented after bans in the past for tobacco and alcohol companies. But the more likely option is that a so-called “voluntary front-of-shirt ban” could be agreed by Premier League and possibly other clubs. That said, given that Villa have signed a three-year deal, it seems they at least are focusing on the voluntary element of such an agreement, or certainly don’t see anything happening in the near future.
Which Clubs Are Sponsored by Gambling Companies?
Almost all clubs in the top two divisions have some kind of link with one or more gambling companies. Whether a particular firm is the “official betting partner” of a football club, or perhaps just the “Asian betting partner” or some similarly specific title. There are almost always betting logos on hoardings at grounds, or on the fronts, backs or sleeves of shirts or training tops, or in the background as players and managers are interviewed after games. But here are the teams in the current (2022/23) Premier League season whose main shirt sponsor is a gambling firm.
|Bournemouth||Dafabet||£2m per year|
|Everton||Stake.com||£8m per year|
|Newcastle United||Fun88||£6.5m per year|
|West Ham United||Betway||£10m per year|
|Southampton||Sportsbet.io||£3m per year|
|Leeds United||SBOTOP||£3m per year|
|Brentford||Hollywoodbets||£1.5m per year|
|Fulham||W88||£3m per year|
It is interesting to note that – with the exception of Newcastle, who have recently come into a shedload of cash – the teams who have resorted to sponsorship deals with gambling firms are not the richest in the land. The likes of Man United, Man City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham, have various airlines or financial (or similar) firms as their sponsors… and all of those teams bring in £30m or more per year from their shirt sponsorship deals, such is their worldwide appeal.
No other side brings in more than £10m a year, which is just one of the many reasons the so-called Big Six are likely to remain dominant for a good while yet (unless Newcastle’s owners have something to say about it, of course). It also explains why so many clubs work with betting firms – they offer the most cash to teams beyond the elite.
Clubs Choose Gambling Firms Because They Have Ample Cash Flow
Whether Villa or a host of other clubs could survive for long in the rough and tumble of the money-centric Premier League without gambling sponsorship deals is difficult to say. But when some of the biggest clubs are bringing in tens of millions in sponsorship from companies effectively owned by extremely deep-pocketed owners (and, allegedly, not even fairly!), you can at least understand why the owners of smaller clubs attempt to get the most cash possible, even if the companies offering the top dollar aren’t exactly paragons of virtue.
On the flip side, there are plenty of gambling firms with a lot of cash to splash who haven’t used sexualised content and potentially offensive material in their ad campaigns. So Villa could certainly have put in a little more thought alongside their extensive due diligence and figured out it might not go down particularly well with their fans.
But, ultimately, there might be plenty of fans who would be rather upset if their team slipped down a division or two because they couldn’t afford the players required to stay in the top flight. And, it is this fine line that the owners of clubs must tread as they balance the well-being of fans with the success – or even survival – of the football clubs themselves.
Gambling as Recreational
Last, but absolutely not least, we have to question whether the demonisation of gambling is even fair in the first place. Millions of people enjoy betting on a recreational basis every single week and do so in moderation, responsibly and without causing any harm to anyone. This, we would argue, makes gambling very different from tobacco, which cannot be used without causing harm to one’s health and that of those around the smoker. Increasingly science and medicine are telling us the same thing about alcohol too.
What’s more, many of the largest tax-payers in the country are individuals who generate income through owning gambling firms. So, why are we penalising such businesses by limiting their ability to market themselves fairly when we allow huge corporations to pay very little tax? This is not to belittle the impact problem gambling can have and we fully support responsible betting. However, it is hard not to feel that perhaps gambling is being unfairly treated. If that is the case, then perhaps the whole issue of football clubs being sponsored by such companies is moot. Sexism, misogyny and hot dogs though, that’s a whole different story!