Cigarettes and gambling: (un)fit sport business partners?

Recently while visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Fútbol: The Beautiful Game exhibit, I encountered one particular work of art that struck me as relevant to contemporary sport industry sponsorship opportunities and their regulation. Leo Fitzmaurice’s, Post Match (2013) presents a lineup of 20 international cigarette boxes (re)fashioned into paper cut-out soccer jerseys. The evenly spaced cigarette pack jerseys with crisp collars stand in as replicas of teams we are assumed to know – assumed to be as familiar to fans as their widely distributed cigarette counterparts.

The artist makes his point — smoking has historically gone hand-in-hand with soccer, at least on a corporate level. Fitzmaurice draws attention to how soccer team names, pronounced on these jerseys in bold broadcast-legible font, also announce the corporate cigarette brand sponsor behind them –- Win, Prince, Sovereign, Royals, Club, Palace, Special, Nil –- names steeped in sporting references of victory, monarchy, power and dominance.

JP Plunier leo fitmaurice
(Credit: JP Plunier)

While this art depicts imaginary teams, the work raises important issues on the relations and character of sport sponsorship industry partners. Who’s encouraged, or not, as a correct fit? What sorts of sponsorships are balanced in social, sport and business interests?

In recent years, the tobacco industry has become a less welcomed partner in sport markets globally. For example, changes in European Union (EU) law have impeded sport sponsoring and advertising partnerships since 2005, when a directive prohibited the advertising of tobacco products across radio, print, the internet and also in live sporting event venues.

For Formula One (F1) auto racing, the EU regulatory directive challenged the long-standing partnership (1984-2015) between Ferrari and Philip Morris International. However, through a creative subterfuge, Ferrari found a way to retain its kindred red Marlboro cigarette sponsor. No longer allowed to decal its racing machines in Marlboro’s name brand logo, the F1 Ferrari’s graphic design team instead opted to adorn the motor racing livery with what resembled a price scanning code, perhaps, for a pack of Marlboro cigarettes!

barcode livery
Ferrari 2010, F1 car

The controversy pressured F1 team Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro to remove the barcode livery, and ultimately Ferrari released a public statement denying the design was, in fact, a barcode. Shortly after, an alternative design emerged – a white outlined, empty rectangle upon the Ferrari. To be sure, the team name also came under attack. Since 2011, the team is now officially called simply Scuderia Ferrari. Avoiding the corporate name or image of Marlboro, Ferrari F1 Team began racing about European and global circuits with a UPC symbol on the car’s airbox.

(Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)
(Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

Similar to the tobacco industry, alcohol advertising has not enjoyed smooth sailing with its highly sought sport sponsorship dealings.

After awarding World Cup 2014 hosting honors to Brazil, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) found Brazilian alcohol consumption laws – laws that prohibit in-stadium alcohol consumption in order to better preserve the peace and stave off rampant hooliganism – in conflict with the interests of one of its title sponsors, Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser. Caught in a bind, FIFA launched a sharp lobbying effort to have the national laws banning alcohol sales and consumption in sport venues revoked. In the end, postering-up sport event venues with alcohol messaging is allowed, drinking beverages is not.

Sport governing bodies have found it more financially profitable to shed their Dudley Do-Right image which has kept things like tobacco, alcohol and gambling at bay. More and more, global commercial sport has lifted its blanket prohibitions which have categorically disqualified such so-called vice corporate sponsorships.

As the shifting regulatory environment indicates, a changed moral landscape that prioritizes public health has resulted in the curbing of promotional space for tobacco (and to a lesser extent, alcohol). Yet, we witness something quite different with respect to the gambling industry.

Previously marred by moral stigma, the gambling industry is coming to be seen as a welcomed and valued peer, a global market contributor for the sport industry. What was a predominant state interest in limiting gambling now surfaces in a topsy-turvy fashion. Recognizing that the gambling sector has the potential to draw such revenues, we can more easily see how state interests in gambling change and expand, thus behooving a state to groom pleasant gambling market environments. While smoking adverts might be out, gambling partnerships seem on a boom.  Since 2009, when 188Bet debuted as the first gambling shirt sponsorship in the English Premier League (EPL), with teams Wigan Athletic and Bolton Wanderers, gambling sponsorships have become a staple revenue stream for EPL teams.

In 2008, according to the Remote Gambling Association, $99.6 million of the total $708.4 million shirt sponsorship earnings in the top English Spanish, Italian, French and American soccer leagues were from gambling companies. Interestingly enough, these advertising deals are largely in markets in which gambling (online gambling) remains prohibited.

For 2013/2014, most EPL teams have high level, exclusive sponsorships with a betting partner, and three of twenty EPL teams’ title shirt sponsor deals are online betting industry partners: Aston Villa (Dafabet), Fulham (Marathonbet), Stoke City (Bet365). Since early 2014, online gambling sponsors have also more strongly made a presence in American professional sports: Both the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Jersey Devils signed multi-year partnerships with Bwin’s PartyPoker.

NHL: Phoenix Coyotes at New Jersey Devils
Two New Jersey Devils celebrate a goal in front of a PartyPoker banner (Credit: Ed Mulholland)

The gambling industry, though regularly demonized as a potential sport integrity risk, enriches the sport industry’s coffers. With changes in technology that reshape sport viewing practices to more extensively involved second-screen and interactive participation, the gambling industry is keen to demonstrate its stature as a respectable, profitable partner.

The sport industry may have said good-bye to tobacco dollars, but the industry seems to have found a mutual beneficiary eager for brand exposure and global reach — the gambling industry. The choice of sport partners and types of sponsor relationships ought to be gripped as intertwined ethical and social issues, not as merely financial wrestlings.


Rook Campbell is a Visiting Professor of Communication and Political Science at the University of Southern California. Follow her on Twitter: @cabinet48

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