The Premier League’s ethical code – Could more be done?

As more and more brands invest in the Premier League’s global image, could more be being done to balance that growth against an ethical code?

Anyone who wants to make a conveniently sweeping judgement about the relative growth of any given industry in the domestic and, increasingly, the global market need not look very much further than the names and logos ironed across the front of replica football shirts as they hang en masse in high street sports shops like tiny portable billboards. Football it seems is the new sex. It sells. It also looks tacky when touted around by a remorselessly cheap pop culture, courts controversy like it’s going out of fashion and often leaves one feeling unfulfilled. All three phenomena are a common theme of the modern alliance between the game and 21st century advertising practices. The cosy relationship between online betting firms and the Premier League’s colours and crests feels particularly uncomfortable.

Between 2011 and 2014 there will have been a total of 10 online gambling agencies splashed across the fronts of top-flight shirts spreading a creeping and insidious dye throughout the game’s fabric. The Premier League talks a lot about corporate responsibility – applied lightly with a delicate sprinkling of just 3.1million from the 5billion windfall that comes from global broadcast contracts alone – but responsibility comes in many forms and the image that the League has increasingly been transmitting of itself since the first online betting brand appeared on Fulham’s shirts in 2002 is in crisis.

The question on the lips of every executive decision maker at organisations spanning the full spectrum of ambition and reach will always be ‘what kind of business do we wish to operate?’ The answer from Richard Scudamore and friends, if the question is being asked at all, seems to be that an institution which fails to respond to a pandemic within its ranks and transmits a destructive example to a vulnerable subset of its core support is a-ok as long the coffers continue to swell.

Dominic Matteo, Matthew Etherington and Deitmar Hamman have suffered the most high profile falls of the last few years whilst Keith Gillespie and Michael Chopra also confronted their addictions publicly, but testimony from a catalogue of Premier League managers and staff bears witness to a habit that drains millions from the pockets of players, many of whom have financial and emotional commitments to young families. Jose Mourinho remarked in 2007 that gambling was etched into the DNA of professional football culture and the message coming from the very top is that the authorities see this as an opportunity rather than a problem to be addressed.

The Premier League’s explicit endorsement of the gambling industry as it makes its relocation from the high street into family homes via increasingly ubiquitous online platforms is having the effect of normalising, if not the financial and emotional insolvency that is bought on by the full force of the addiction, than at least the risk behaviour that leads to it. The blessing is coming across loud, clear and cleanly packaged that easy-access betting is at the heart of what makes the Premier League the best in the world (sic) and that the point at which player-fan interaction is at its fullest isn’t any longer on the terraces but on tablets, mobiles and laptops.

And so just what kind of institution does Scudamore hope to leave the Premier League as? Certainly one that keeps up with the changing pace of business and has a keen finger on the throbbing pulse of a dynamic technological market – indeed no other sporting body has shown itself to be as responsive to new ideas in communications and the omnipresent points of contact between the League and its colossal fan base are what keep it current. But form isn’t everything. The League is peddling a dangerous message in its ‘at-all-costs’ approach to growth and a brand that fails to take responsibility for its more vulnerable clients leaves a tarnished legacy.

 Robert O’Connor