The Pools’ Mark McGuinness: “Sledgehammer approach” from operators has put shirt sponsorship in crosshairs

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UK gambling industry veteran Mark McGuinness insists the gambling act review is not the only reason for operators to reconsider their relationship with British sports clubs and fans.

McGuinness is currently head of digital marketing at The Pools, an historic UK sports pool betting business destined to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2023. He has worked in the gambling industry for decades, having held roles at Betdaq, BetOlimp and Sportpesa in recent years.

In conversation with iGaming NEXT, McGuinness said: “I suppose from the sidelines, the gambling industry is quite frankly viewed as a pariah in terms of sport, because they’re not actually giving back to the sport per se.

“Obviously, they’re giving back in terms of sponsorship, in pounds and pence, but there have been companies that are a bit more integrated into the whole fan base that ask themselves: how can we work with the club?

“Sky Bet has been particularly good with what it has done for the championship and the lower leagues as well,” he added.

Mark McGuinness: “I suppose from the sidelines, the gambling industry is quite frankly viewed as a pariah in terms of sport, because they’re not actually giving back to the sport per se.”

Sky Bet is locked in an 11-year deal as the title sponsor of the English Football League and the brand has become synonymous with professional football below the Premier League.

The long-term activation goes far beyond shirt sponsorship, via a three-league rights deal that includes exclusive club website content, stadium branding and live streamed matches.

“There are certainly some examples of excellence, and they’re not just trying to prey on football fans for their own revenue purposes,” said McGuinness. “Actually, it’s more about the brand and brand activation, and how they can ingratiate themselves with the fans.”

In 2019, McGuinness spent six months working as an operations manager at Sportpesa. He was based in Liverpool while the business sponsored the blue half of Merseyside in Everton.

Recalling his own experience of top-flight shirt sponsorship, he added: “I think the club and the brand have to be more aligned. At Everton, they were very specific in what the brands could and could not do, and where it needed to distance itself from.

“Clubs have leverage now where they clearly don’t need the commercial investment. I think they’ll be doing it strictly on their own terms when dealing with gambling operators.”

“That meant we at Sportpesa understood their values as a club and what they wanted to do in the community, and how we could support that.

“Clubs have leverage now where they clearly don’t need the commercial investment. I think they’ll be doing it strictly on their own terms when dealing with gambling operators.”

Everton eventually cancelled its sponsorship deal with Sportpesa, with the African operator embroiled in controversy due to an ongoing tax dispute in its domestic market of Kenya.

At the time, Everton CEO Denise Barrett-Baxendale said that in an ideal world, the club would prefer to work with a different type of sponsor outside of the betting industry.

Despite her comments, the club has faced a backlash from fans this summer after striking a lucrative front-of-shirt sponsorship deal with global crypto betting outfit Stake.com.

Premier League clubs are scheduled to vote on a voluntary ban on front-of-shirt sponsorships next month in a late bid to avoid government intervention on the issue.

“Gambling companies haven’t looked at how they can integrate, or properly develop a rapport with the fanbase or the club itself, instead of just advertising the latest odds. That, clearly, has been their undoing.”

With front-of-shirt deals firmly in the regulatory crosshairs, McGuinness believes it’s high time brands focused on more subtle marketing activations.

“I think gambling companies are always going in with the sledgehammer approach,” McGuinness told iGaming NEXT. “And I think partly that’s been driven by the relaxation in sponsorship regulation. Since then, I think the industry has come to the conclusion that it’s boom or bust.

“They go in there because they know the regulators are going to come in at some point and say enough is enough, and eventually, it’ll go the same way as tobacco and alcohol.”

McGuinness would stop short of banning front-of-shirt sponsorships altogether, however, and admits the “pendulum may have swung too far” towards overregulation at present.

“But I think that’s partly because gambling companies haven’t looked at how they can integrate, or properly develop a rapport with the fanbase or the club itself, instead of just advertising the latest odds.

“That, clearly, has been their undoing,” he concludes.

About the author

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Conor Mulheir

Conor entered the gaming industry in 2018 producing high-level live event content for audiences in London, Amsterdam and São Paulo. From 2020, he went on to report news and commission exclusive content for various gaming media brands before joining iGaming NEXT as editor in January 2022.

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