Sport has long been considered a great way for sponsors to increase brand recognition – and rugby league is no different.
The last few years have seen an explosion of interest in the sport from a wide variety of gambling companies, to the extent that a large proportion of teams now have a betting-related sponsor featured somewhere on their shirt.
Betting companies have also adopted the sport through the use of title sponsorships for league and cup competitions, meaning it can be tough to avoid gambling brands altogether.
But how did it come about that there are so many gambling sponsors in rugby league? Where is this all going to lead? And is it a good thing or a bad thing for the sport to have embraced betting in such a big way over the course of recent years?
A brief history of gambling sponsors in rugby league
Traditionally, rugby league clubs have had sponsorships from the alcohol and tobacco industries, but around the turn of the century there was an understanding this might not be the right message to send out to the sport.
Tobacco and alcohol sponsorships are now relatively rare across sport – and even banned in some cases – which left a large gap waiting to be filled. With the arrival of the internet bringing betting into people’s homes for the first time, gambling companies identified that there was a clear opportunity to boost their profile.
Betting firms began to secure sponsorship deals with sports teams including rugby league clubs, but there seemed to be a major turning point back in 2011 – the sport having already turned down an offer from betting company 888.com a few years previously.
Betfair wanted to become the title sponsor of the Super League and had made an attractive offer to do so, only for clubs to narrowly vote against allowing the move. Instead, the Stobart Group agreed a deal to sponsor the Super League, with First Utility following in their footsteps. But when that contract expired, betting firms were ready again.
In 2016, Betfred penned a three-year deal to become the title sponsor of the Super League, adding to its sponsorship of the snooker World Championship. It is thought that Betfred pays around £850,000 to £900,000 a year to be the main sponsor of the Super League.
Super League chief executive Nigel Wood said at the time of the announcement: “Betfred is a well-recognised household name and I am delighted to welcome them to the sport as the new title sponsors of the Betfred Super League.”
The state of rugby league gambling sponsorship today
Betfred remains the title sponsor of the Super League today and it is clear there have been benefits for the sport as a result of the relationship.
Rugby league fans who like to bet on their favourite teams now have more options than ever before, whereas rugby league previously felt rather marginalised in terms of betting.
There is never likely to be the sort of media profile enjoyed by football in rugby league, but Betfred are widely regarded as having done a good job to raise awareness of the game.
As well as the Super League itself, the Challenge Cup also has a gambling sponsor right now after a deal was agreed with Ladbrokes, which signed a three-year deal back in 2015.
“The Ladbrokes Challenge Cup is rich in heritage and tradition and is known across the world, so to have a brand as successful and recognisable as Ladbrokes commit to extending their support is great news for the sport. Ladbrokes has been a fantastic supporter of rugby league and we are delighted that they are continuing their association with our great sport,” said Rugby Football League chief commercial officer Roger Draper.
Ladbrokes has also been the official title sponsor of the Four Nations tournament, so it is clearly not just the UK rugby league market that is being targeted by these betting companies.
Anyone who fancies a bet should visit a site that is known to provide free bets that meet the new bonus regulations. Jason Ready from the no deposit site NoDepositRewards says, “We only recommend free bets that are fair and meet guidelines set by the Gambling Commission.” These regulations have been introduced to combat unfair practices by certain bookmakers.
The future of gambling sponsors in rugby league
With gambling companies now embedded within the culture of rugby league, what is the future going to hold for the sport’s relationship with rugby league?
Perhaps what is happening in football will be some indication, with the tide starting to turn against betting-related firms in terms of sponsorship deals.
With around half of the teams in the Premier League now having a shirt sponsor involved in gambling, the presence within that sport is about the same as it is in rugby league.
But the Football Association (FA) announced last summer that it would be ending all partnerships with gambling companies, with a long-term Ladbrokes deal terminated early as a result. It is believed that the FA lost out on around £4 million a year due to the decision.
The Labour Party has also indicated it would ban shirt sponsorship deals with betting firms in the Premier League if it was to form the next government. Deputy leader of the party Tom Watson – who is also the shadow minister for digital, culture media and sport – said the move would be necessary in order to combat gambling addiction in the UK.
Whether rugby league would follow suit in such a move is questionable. The sport has after all demonstrated previously that it is wary of betting firms, having rejected 888.com and Betfair as title sponsors of the Super League, only then to embrace the likes of Betfred and Ladbrokes.
Betfred, in its defence, also sponsors the National Conference League, so the firm has shown a decent level of commitment to supporting the sport of rugby league at all levels. And if betting companies are willing to offer more money for sponsorship than firms in any other sector, rugby league clubs and the sport itself will have to make a difficult decision.
Another solution could be to follow in the footsteps of Australia, which took measures against the rise in gambling activity within rugby league recently. Laws were passed so that gambling adverts were banned from sports events that were shown before the watershed. It is too early to tell how much of an impact this move has made, however.
It remains to be seen whether widespread gambling sponsorship within the sport of rugby league is here for the long-term, or if in a few year’s time it will prove to have been a bit of a fad. What is for sure is that the sport managed just fine before gambling sponsors arrived on the scene and rugby league would simply get on with the job, should the betting firms move on.