In the past twelve months, sport has moved ever more central to my world.
Fair to say, it had a pretty-strong gravitational pull already: football, cricket, rugby – of both codes – horse racing and Formula 1 have always been in my social and leisure orbit, and the occasional satellite NBA, MLB and NFL fixture too.
The big sports stories of 2023 have been about how new entities are now invading this space. Professionally, I had the chance to see that close-up when adding Saudi Pro League to a list of clients I helped shape narratives and tell stories with.
In doing so, I also learned a lot about the emerging technologies which will shape global sports and future spectator viewership.
I attended and spoke at events where marketing, technology and business growth were interwoven, and with the Saudi’s and others deep pockets, their appetite to redefine the sports-experience, and their passion for technology, I became engaged in and exposed to some cutting-edge thinking.
What was especially prominent in all those discussions was how gaming, streaming and fantasy leagues were going to be central to these plans.
Of course, one of the things which won’t be making its presence felt in Saudi is the proliferation of gambling brands, websites and crypto casinos, which English Premier League clubs are so beholden to. Along with alcohol and various other western vices, a flutter on the result, the nags, or the next goal scorer is haraam -strictly forbidden.
So, it was both interesting and surprising to hear that my team, Everton, had doubled down on their relationship with Dutch Curacao-based Australian-owned casino website Stake.com and had added their new streaming service Kick to the shirt sponsorship portfolio.
There are many who find the presence of gambling websites across sport to be ‘distasteful’, and it is true, gambling addiction and malpractice have left a stain on the game – potential England striker Ivan Toney is currently banned until January next year for breaching gambling rules.
Chelsea have chosen not to carry the Stake.com logo on their shirts – jogging out on their recent US tour in a kit unsullied by commercial logos – but nearly every other club has a gambling firm in their list of sponsors, especially with EPL games broadcast live into the huge wager-happy Chinese market.
Sportsbooks, Betting and Gambling Firms have been strictly forbidden from sports sponsorship here in the U.S. until just recently.
As someone who checks their SkyBet account with alarming regularity, this always puzzled me – the Americans can have a very puritanical streak about things like a wager, a bare nipple or a curse word on TV – yet have legalised drugs, make military grade arms available in your local shopping mall and have 16-year-olds driving two-ton SUV’s through your neighbourhood – I guess it all depends on your perception of ‘risk’.
But that has all changed. The NFL was the first to crumble, seeing billions of dollars being made available. Interestingly, the NFL banned players from having sponsorship deals or endorsing gaming companies – probably to keep more of the table gains for themselves.
While the NFL rakes in league-level sponsorships with sportsbooks such as DraftKings, FanDuel, and Caesars, more than 25 NFL teams now have at least one sports betting or daily fantasy sponsor resulting in NFL-wide sports betting sponsorship revenue increasing by 40% last season, according to SponsorUnited, the leading sponsorship tracking platform.
I think the genie is out of the bottle and any retreat from gambling sponsorship isn’t going to happen. It already appears to have opened the door for others, with potential U.S. alcohol sponsors looking to join the breweries, which for some reason are treated differently than wine and spirits today.
So, let’s look at that Everton deal again.
At first blush it looks like a cash-strapped club has held its nose, turned off the websites-comments function, and cashed the cheque. A bit sad, but with sanctions and Financial Fair Play investigations hanging over their head, a desperate move they may feel they had to make.
But perhaps it is a moment of genius.
Thinking back to those conferences, seminars and workshops in the Middle East, New York and Silicon Valley when the tech guys, media rights brokers and the league and club/franchise marketers were bouncing ideas around – this is exactly the sort of opportunity they were predicting.
What if Everton streams all its games on KICK – a content creator platform which was only set up less than 8 months ago but has 15 million accounts and 80 million daily site visits to the more than 10,000 channels it streams.
IF you aren’t au fait with KICK or its streaming competitor TWITCH, much of it is people watching others playing computer games like Fortnite and Call of Duty, peddling very soft porn, or gambling on-line. Ask your kids.
The very best streamers have millions of followers and to entice them to its platform KICK is offering a 95-5 revenue split in favour of the content creator – TWITCH only splits it 50-50 with you.
While Everton continue to struggle to sign stars to their playing roster, KICK has no such problem, signing one of the biggest names in gaming and streaming – Felix ‘xQc’ Lengyel, a Canadian gamer who wins big tournaments, is foul-mouthed, and has been kicked off other platforms for live streaming his gambling. KICKS have paid him $100million to stream on their platform for 2 years – that is more than LeBron James commanded in his recent contract negotiations with the Lakers.
So, imagine this? What if Everton’s games are streamed live, with in-game betting, and influencers with the clout of xQc bringing his global legions to the party? What if Everton get a 95% slice of that action? Maybe Everton become the ‘bad boy’ of football and ditch the wholesome People’s Club branding in favour of some of the shouty, gambling, hot-tubs and bikinis-style personas becoming billionaires in the streaming world? The naming rights for the club’s glorious new stadium on the Royal Blue Mersey are still up for grabs so why wouldn’t a gambling and streaming entity be interested in that?
Everton can now add ‘socialising gaming and streaming’ to ‘numbered shirts’, ‘purpose-built football grounds’, and ‘undersoil heating’ on their impressive list of firsts.
But it is clear streaming services are big business.
It is unlikely KICK will be long-term partners with Everton, but in a club so strapped for cash that ‘any partner is a good partner’, the streaming service has been able to enter the sports market at the very top table – English Premier League with its global audience and reach.
And what else may be on their radar?
KICK stuck its logo on the back of the Alfa Romeo Formula 1 cars at last weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix – where gambling sites like parent Stake.com are banned.
Next stop the NFL or NBA? – where the market is just as large, the rules governing gambling and sponsorship are still being written, and the cross-over between gaming, celebrity and sports-stars sits more comfortably.