In July 2019, Wolves beat Newcastle 4-0 in a pre-season friendly in the Chinese city of Nanjing. It was the same day that Steve Bruce was appointed Newcastle’s head coach but there was another reason why that match is notable. Both sets of players wore specially adapted shirts to avoid the awkward situation of breaking local laws.
Wolves’ and Newcastle’s usual shirts both featured advertisements for Asian gambling companies. They are not alone, the Premier League is awash with them. But hiding in plain sight is an awkward fact: the Chinese government does not allow gambling.
That is why Newcastle replaced Fun88 with National Sports app, which fans pointed out had a logo remarkably similar to that of owner Mike Ashley’s firm Sports Direct, for the game in Nanjing. Wolves ditched ManBetX for Fosun, the Chinese conglomerate which owns the club.
Once upon a time in the top flight, radio station Classic FM sponsored Queens Park Rangers’ shirts, the logo of Muller yoghurts was emblazoned across the chests of Aston Villa players and the Pizza Hut logo had pride of place on Fulham’s kit. Now, you are more likely to see adverts for companies — often featuring Chinese script and the lucky number eight — promoting gambling to viewers in China, a country with around 1.4 billion people and an obsession with the Premier League and gambling in all its forms. Yet running a gambling firm in China is illegal.
This season, eight of the 20 main Premier League shirt sponsors are gambling companies, while almost every club in the league has a partnership with at least one gambling firm, with adverts appearing around stadiums and on the boards in front of which players give pre- and post-match interviews.
A few of these are familiar names to UK gamblers, companies such as William Hill and Bet365, which directly hold a licence with the UK Gambling Commission. However, many more are obscure Asian companies including Burnley sponsor LoveBet, which The Athletic revealed last week is believed to be undergoing financial struggles.
The companies highlighted in the table above access the UK market by so-called “white label” arrangements, meaning the UK authorities and the clubs who take their money often have little idea about the brands behind them or how they are funded.
“What a lot of football fans won’t understand is how little interest most of these firms have in the UK market and in UK bettors,” says Alun Bowden, head of European markets at US research firm Eilers & Krejcik Gaming. “It’s just about trying to get brand exposure in Asian markets where gambling advertising is banned or heavily restricted. It’s a game within a game, and you’re not playing.”
In an exclusive investigation, based on dozens of conversations with insiders in Asia and Europe, The Athletic can reveal:
- Gambling firms based in Asian countries, operating through offshore middlemen and the “white label” system, use Premier League football as a billboard to reach consumers in China, where the government does not allow gambling
- UK authorities have warned that insufficient checks are being carried out to guard against money-laundering and criminal activity
- The industry is worth “billions of dollars”, with a first-time gambler’s deposit worth as much as $500, while clubs in the bottom half of the Premier League “highly rely” on the multi-million-pound income from these deals
- Many English clubs know very little about the nature of the companies whose logos they plaster over their shirts and stadium advertising hoardings
- Few of these companies have any significant presence in the UK and their personnel and funding remains opaque
- Concerns over the impact this has in Asia, with football fans risking jail if they follow up the adverts they see during televised matches
These revelations come as the UK government is carrying out a major review into the gambling industry, which is expected to look closely at the issue of football sponsorship. It also comes as the Gambling Commission has admitted to “concern” that some white-label websites may not have effective anti-money-laundering controls or carry out “sufficient due diligence” on websites to ensure there are no “links to criminal activity”.
Carolyn Harris MP, chair of the Gambling Related Harm All-Party Parliamentary Group, describes the current situation as “astounding”, with clubs “actively promoting Asian firms which have no paper trail, which seek to entice gambling in China, where gambling on football is illegal”. “We need immediate action on this,” she adds.
Last month, Aston Villa took on Liverpool in the FA Cup. The Villa first-team squad were self-isolating owing to a coronavirus outbreak, so they had to field youth players in the cup tie.
Those players were mostly too young to legally place a bet so LT, Villa’s sleeve sponsor, had to be ditched for the evening. Gambling advertisements cannot appear on youth-sized shirts sold to the general public, either.
At the halfway point of the season, LT has no functioning UK website, just a placeholder page saying “once live our website will provide UK players with a Sportsbook and Casino platform”.
However, a Chinese language website for the company, registered on the tiny Caribbean island of Curacao, features Villa’s star striker Ollie Watkins and carries a gambling “sportsbook”.
Other companies like ManBetX and Fun88 do have websites, but these are generally run by intermediary companies in places such as the Isle of Man and Malta, meaning different Premier League sponsors’ pages often look very similar to each other.
For example, Fun88, which also sponsors billboards around the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, pays a company called TGP Europe, based on the Isle of Man, to run its website. This means it is virtually identical to that of Yabo Sports, which has deals with Manchester United and Leicester City.
TGP Europe now also runs a site for SBOTOP, sponsors of Leeds United, although for the first few weeks of the season the company simply had a placeholder page. It is not clear, however, if SBOTOP is in the same category as other white-label sponsors as it is not clear they are targeting customers in China.
It is also unclear where these actual gambling companies are based, however, or who runs them. The Athletic has asked the clubs and contacted the email address given on these placeholder websites — often the same email address for an intermediary company like TGP Europe.
These football-related “white label” companies are run from an office in the Isle of Man or Malta in order to gain legal access to the UK market and legally advertise on Premier League shirts.
This process involves setting up a website which is designed to “look and feel like a company or brand, but the contents and services provided on the website are operated and managed by a licensed gambling company”, says the Gambling Commission. “This is typically a commercial arrangement where both parties share any profit from the website.”
A spokesperson for the Gambling Commission told The Athletic: “Where an operator contracts with a third party, we expect the operators that we licence to carry out all necessary due diligence to satisfy themselves that the proposed relationship will not in any way compromise the operator’s own compliance.”
But these operators are not based in the United Kingdom, do not make clear who runs them and do not respond to press enquiries.
“Given the global appeal of the Premier League, advertising on football shirts is one way to bypass advertising bans in countries where online gambling is illegal, like China,” says Matt Zarb-Cousin, director of Clean Up Gambling. “By allowing these operators to advertise through white labels in Britain, we are effectively helping to facilitate illegal gambling abroad.”
He accuses Premier League sponsors who do this of “profiting from countries where there is no regulation, and without paying towards services to support those that get addicted”.
Leo Ma is a branding director for one of the biggest betting groups in the Philippines, with substantial experience negotiating deals between gambling companies and Premier League football clubs.
He says he once tried to obtain a UK gambling licence for a company directly but it was a “hard, complicated and long process”. But paying a middleman to acquire a “white-label licence” is not nearly as onerous. “You just pay a service fee,” he says.
ManBetX, which sponsors Wolves’ shirts, has an arrangement with Vivaro Limited, a company based in Malta which last year was fined more than €700,000 by the Maltese authorities after violating 10 provisions of that country’s Prevention of Money Laundering and Funding of Terrorism Regulations.
Gambling consultant Bowden says such offshore intermediaries will run all the functions of the website — taking bets, paying out winnings and interacting with customers — despite the fact that very few people probably use this service because the substantive business is based in Asia.
As a UK consumer, it is possible to place bets through most of these websites (Villa sponsor LT being an exception, with a placeholder website that doesn’t function at all). But this is not the real business being advertised.
“The brands’ UK-facing business could ultimately just be a small marketing team, or even just a single guy in an office who deals with the white-label provider,” says Bowden. “The Asian bookmakers are typically not targeting a UK audience at all.”
During the 2018-19 Premier League season, Huddersfield Town played Burnley in a clash in which both teams’ shirts carried Chinese writing advertising gambling firms.
Both companies employed the services of Vivaro. But two years later, neither Laba360 nor OPE Sports has a functioning UK website.
Other recent Premier League sponsors also have defunct websites, such as M88, which had a deal with Bournemouth until the club severed ties after the Gambling Commission opened an investigation into the company.
These vanishing websites suggest the sole purpose of the white labels was to enable the shirt sponsorship, not for any genuine business operations in the UK.
TGP Europe and Vivaro did not respond to several requests by The Athletic for comment.
A broker who makes these deals, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Athletic that clubs in the bottom half of the Premier League “highly rely on the gambling fee. They would be struggling if betting was not allowed for partnerships”.
Yet, despite signing deals worth millions of pounds with top clubs, many of these companies are utterly obscure, even to people who live and breathe this world, and perhaps even to some of the clubs who take their money.
“Even as a gambling industry expert, I often come across brands I have never heard of, and operations where I wouldn’t be able to tell you what their day-to-day business model was,” says Bowden. “The UK is a means to an end, and there is very little overlap between these firms and the mainstream UK gambling industry. They serve entirely different markets with entirely different operating models. The UK-facing versions of the site you see are rarely representative of the ultimate larger business.”
Clubs generally do not take a very detailed look into the finances and business operations of these companies, says branding director Ma, adding: “I don’t think (all clubs) quite understand who the sponsor is and what they are actually doing.”
Adrian Wright, a former director at West Bromwich Albion, who now runs marketing site www.sportinggi.com, says white-label licences are seen by clubs considering a deal as sufficient evidence. “In terms of due diligence, obviously the Gambling Commission in the UK sets the bar for holding a UK licence,” he says. “It’s not for a football club or an agent to second guess what’s required in the UK.”
Yet it is not even possible to know for sure where some of these companies are based, let alone to carry out due diligence on company accounts and directors, as is possible with any UK company via the Companies House website. (The Athletic approached every club and company mentioned in this article, with little success.)
“We know very little about where many of these companies are truly based, who owns them and where their source of wealth comes from,” says Dr James Noyes, senior fellow of the Social Market Foundation think tank and author of a major report on gambling reform.
It is most likely the firms targeting Chinese consumers through English football are based outside China, most commonly the Philippines, according to multiple sources spoken to by The Athletic. No clubs would share this information when asked.
In the Philippines, regulations allow gambling operators to target consumers on the other side of the South China Sea. Philippines Offshore Gaming Operators operate on the condition they do not target Filipino gamblers. This means the government receives benefits in the form of employment and tax revenues, while outsourcing any undesirable side effects.
Gambling is tightly regulated in China, only allowed via the state lottery or in casinos in the territory of Macau, and Professor Simon Chadwick, director of Eurasian Sport at Emlyon Business School, says it would be “extremely unwise” for anyone to be running a large scale online gambling company out of the country. “If the state were to find you and track you down, the consequences would be extreme and severe.”
Chinese laws prohibit marketing gambling firms as well as running them, so English football is one of the only ways these firms can make themselves known to Chinese consumers, a process which Ma describes as “ambush marketing”.
Marketing stunts include branded live sports shows where people talk about Premier League matches, and the likelihood of who is going to score, without explicitly referring to gambling.
But this is all getting more difficult because of government crackdowns.
A simpler method is just using Premier League clubs as billboards.
“For a lot of these Chinese consumers they’re not going to walk around the streets of Shanghai and see bookmakers’ shops, you’re not going to come across gambling ads online,” says Professor Chadwick. “So how do you get to know about a brand or company name? A football shirt is a way to do that.”
“The reason (Asian gambling firms) selected Premier League and Championship club sponsor-deals is to gain exposure and legitimise their brand on a global media platform,” adds Wright.
A senior figure working at an agency based in China with experience of gambling and football spoke to The Athletic on condition of anonymity. “(Gambling companies) can’t do anything to market themselves in China, so they have to be creative,” the individual said. “It will either be drummed into (viewers’) subconscious, or people watching the game will search for it, and they will convert people. It’s the fastest way they can get their brands out there.”
An individual gambler’s first-time deposit can be worth as much as $500 to an Asian gambling company. “When you compare that to pretty much every other business, that’s astronomical.”
The huge sums of money on offer are why these companies spring up so quickly, and have millions of pounds to spend on Premier League shirt deals.
“It’s likely that the market value is billions of dollars a year, which is why there is such a proliferation of these online betting companies,” explains Jonathan Sullivan, an expert on China at the University of Nottingham. “The market size makes it worthwhile to do whatever you can to circumvent restrictions to let customers know who you are, and to avoid detection and stay ahead of the censors and regulators.”
Rebecca Cassidy, author of the book Vicious Games, says the ban on gambling operators in China is strictly enforced with frequent raids and imprisonments taking place. This means Chinese people struggling with gambling-related issues do not have access to the sorts of responsible gambling resources which are now heavily promoted in the UK and other countries where gambling is legal.
The UK’s Gambling Commission, for example, recommends companies donate 0.1 per cent of annual revenue to the GambleAware charity. But last year The Times reported that TGP Europe donated just £100, despite being the licence-holder for two multi-million-pound deals.
“Gambling in China is harming ordinary people, as well as facilitating money laundering and organised crime in some cases,” says Cassidy. “Gambling enables movement of money across and within borders. It is very difficult for the UK regulators and the public to understand what is going on.”
Earlier this year, the Global Lottery Monitoring System (GLMS) also warned that these deals may do “damage to sports integrity”.
“The huge Asian betting markets facilitate illegal betting, match-fixing and corrupting sport,” its report said. “This clearly leaves sports and teams who profess to cherish sports integrity open to accusations of hypocrisy.
“Asian-facing betting operators leverage on their association with respected sports teams to legitimise their products and target customers in Asia, where both European football and betting are hugely popular. For sports teams and official governing bodies, this should raise concerns as Asian betting operators market to customers in jurisdictions where most online betting is illegal or unlawful.”
Some football clubs are now having second thoughts about this uneasy relationship with Asian gambling operators.
Last season saw a decline in the number of gambling sponsors in the Premier League, with eight on the front of the 20 clubs’ shirts — down from 10 in 2018-19.
“The clubs are showing caution as the future of sports marketing for the betting sector is under the microscope,” says Wright.
Earlier this year, Everton severed ties with SportPesa, a Kenyan betting firm, following worries about the effects of gambling in that African nation. Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs ditched deals with 1XBet, another gambling company, after allegations emerged of the firm taking bets on children’s sports and live-streaming cockfights. 1XBet has suspended its activity in the UK and launched an investigation, saying its brand had been promoted on prohibited sites.
Clubs that have deals with Asian gambling firms may also treat these companies differently to more mainstream consumer brands. For example, one English club with a major sponsorship deal with an Asian gambling company has a clause which means older, less valuable, former players will appear more often in these ads, and current, more valuable, players less frequently, to avoid being overly associated with an industry coming under increasing scrutiny.
Last month, UK government minister Nigel Huddleston told Parliament that gambling operators “are expected to obey the laws of all other jurisdictions in which they operate”. Steam is also gathering in the UK for changes to the regulations which allow offshore operators to sponsor Premier League clubs.
With the UK government’s gambling review coming up, there may be radical changes to how the system works. Some campaigners, such as Dr Noyes, are arguing for a total overhaul of the system.
The ongoing UK government review notes that “concerns have been raised that the companies who provide the brands may be seeking to use white label arrangements as they would be unable to meet the GB regulatory standards required to obtain a licence themselves”.
“The Gambling Commission needs to get a grip of the situation,” says Dr Noyes. “But so too do the football clubs themselves, who should not be putting short-term marketing profits above the long-term interests of their supporters and the integrity of their sport.”
Carolyn Harris MP agrees: “Big questions need to be asked of the clubs receiving this money and the Gambling Commission must urgently review the use and appropriateness of white labels.”
(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)