Football clubs are businesses, right? They’re employers, have shareholders, CEOs, stocks, and assets worth millions at the top level.
Except that no one was outraged when Facebook changed its name to Meta, moving away from its classic blue-and-white colour scheme, the way people were with MK Dons. Few notice when private equity firms buy up small businesses, but attempts by those same firms to invest in football clubs are not only noticed but met with resistance. The fan-owned clubs of German’s top two divisions rejected proposals from PE firms for their international media rights, such is their reputation for profiteering.
Football clubs will have business interests in the modern day, but they are not and never have been purely private businesses. They are community assets. Aston Villa’s recent behaviour, however, has demonstrated that custodians of clubs often forget this.
What began under a gaslit lamp as a local cricket club in Aston looking to keep its players together during the winter has become a much more global community of fans. Many fans are local from the Midlands or have a familial connection to the club. Increasing TV coverage of England’s top flight has meant that Villa fans can be found around the world. Some, like me, were born in Birmingham into a Villa-supporting family before emigrating abroad. From personal experience, without being able to regularly go to matches, many fans will instead make time to watch matches at odd hours and put money into merchandise. Both at home and abroad we want to show off our fandom, to display to others that Aston Villa is our tribe, our community.
This is what makes a football clubs community assets, not just businesses; the usual rules of capitalist competition just do not apply. If our preferred supermarket closed or became too expensive, we would simply find another. No one exclusively wears one brand of clothing, and few would pay €57 (£49) for a branded outfit for their baby, but myself and many others do pay that (more, even) for a Villa kit. If, as almost became the case before the current ownership, Aston Villa were to simply disappear, we would not just give our support to another club. Few of us would ever wear the kit or merchandise of another English club, and those that do likely have personal reasons for doing so.
Aston Villa is a community, not just a brand we put on. That is why the behaviour of the club, its custodians, and partners matters; it reflects on all of us.
It has unfortunately become all too common to see passion and fandom like ours being exploited for profit, taken for granted, or demolished for not making enough of it in the current climate. In the last year, this very site’s parent company Vox Media recently shut down many of its MLS fan communities and podcasts blaming the current economic climate, with Premier League communities spared the axe for now. Not to mention how the people who poured their time into running these sites were treated before being laid off.
In 2016 @SBNation unceremoniously fired me because I was agitating about the way they covered soccer, the world's sport.— Kirsten (@kdschlewitz) January 20, 2023
Today @voxmedia, worth over a billion, is pulling funding for soccer blogs that have been around 10+ years. We make around $300 per month.
The Premier League’s TV rights policy has allowed matches to be split between multiple companies, each looking to charge as much as possible to watch matches. It is not possible in the UK to watch your team every week without resorting to illegal streams even if you are paying out for all the expensive sports packages. Across the top tiers of football, predominantly working-class fans have been asked to give up more and more financially to follow their side, from the aforementioned rising price of merchandise, which is swapped out for new gear yearly, to multiple TV subscriptions.
Looking more specifically at Aston Villa, the general rise in ticket prices for the second year in row, as well as the cutting down on concessions and redesignating stadium zones, has left some fans with a triple price rise, something opposed by the fan consultation group (FCG) at the time. Similarly, the club chose to partner with Socios, selling the Villa name and identity to a company that profits from selling the unregulated web-based financial products non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to fans and exposing them to financial speculators. Since then, the NFT market has quite predictably crashed, with the value of Socios fan tokens falling consistently. This didn’t stop Villa’s social media promoting them with Douglas Luiz, and Emi Buendia’s corner kick challenge. There is an unfortunate but growing culture of exploiting passionate fans for profit, something that those fans have gone along with to continue to follow their club.
This brings us to the club’s affiliation with dodgy white-label gambling sponsors, something that continues a culture of profiteering from fans. The 20 clubs of the Premier League have opted to ban such sponsorships under the pressure of an independent football regulator in the UK, making such relationships even harder to justify.
These white-label gambling companies, like current AVFC principal partner and sleeve sponsor kaiyan.com, and next season’s front-of-shirt sponsor BK8, have no place in a supposed family club and community, something that has again been pointed out by the FSG to the club. The sites, often out of Asia, have little interest in the community they are sponsoring and instead often look to use the reach of the Premier League to advertise gambling in the Chinese market where it is illegal. Villa’s 2022/23 sleeve sponsor’s website, for instance, cannot be accessed in Europe, and even the club’s own website partner page leads to an error. This should be dodgy enough for any due diligence on the club’s part to point out and avoid.
However, a Mail on Sunday investigation revealed that many of these Premier League sponsors are served by the same white-label provider, TGP Europe, which provides the platform that these companies put their brand on. That company, based out of bookmakers in the Isle of Man, was owned through parent companies by a recently jailed Macau billionaire with links to organized crime. More recently, TGP Europe were fined by the UK gambling commission for failing to comply with anti-money laundering regulations. BK8 specifically were cut from their partnership with Norwich City due to their sexualised marketing strategy, something that BK8 have claimed was actually carried out by a franchise partner.
So, why partner with this or any other white-label gambling company? Simple: they pay more, and hope this is enough to disincentivise the club’s due diligence or the moral objection to the things that due diligence finds. The higher payment was confirmed as the case by a recent meeting of the FCG, though the club maintains that it conducts extensive due diligence. This is before one considers the human cost of gambling and its pervasiveness in football, hitting people with gambling issues or lowered impulse control. By partnering with and displaying these companies on our kits, the club which we are part of and wish to display proudly makes wearers advertisers for corrupt and morally dubious companies.
Do you want your football club associated with this? pic.twitter.com/XsVzvUKzJl— The Big Step (@the_bigstep) January 22, 2023
For all the good work and investment Nassef Sawiris, Wes Edens, and former CEO Christian Purslow have done rebuilding the club after it was almost lost under Tony Xia, this remains a stain on their time as custodians of the club. Players, managers, and owners come and go in football, but the fans stay; it is our club, our community, not just their business. Aston Villa’s owners NWSE Ltd’s last set of accounts reveal that the £12 million made from sponsorships in 2022 is just 7.1% of the club’s overall income (down from 7.8% in 2021), with the majority coming from £123m of broadcast income. That £12m is less than 7 weeks' wages for the men’s playing squad, according to Capology, with each individual sponsor making up a faction of that. Villa’s drop to 14th place from 11th the previous season cost the club £34m , almost three times the sponsorship income.
Even if Villa’s new front-of-shirt sponsor doubles this income, it is quite clear that Aston Villa, and several other Premier League clubs, can afford to do without these companies and the disrepute they bring to the club. Income growth by any means necessary has become a cultural norm for big businesses and those means have become increasingly distasteful; that a community club should participate in that culture is even more so.
So, what can be done about it?
The Premier League’s solution is half-arsed at best, reportedly giving clubs 3 years to remove gambling sponsors from the front of their kits, doing nothing about shirt sleeves, or any other area that could be open advertising space in the future. Independent regulation is still likely to come in regardless of the league’s current efforts to self-police, and the question remains how can clubs give back to the fans who continue to support them financially in difficult economic circumstances?
It is clear that as long as the option is open to them, clubs will pursue the highest-paying front-of-shirt sponsor regardless of who that partner is, so perhaps they could give a little back. For Aston Villa, they can look to the past, and the pride Villa fans still have in the 2008-10 kits featuring local children’s hospice Acorns. During that time, the club forwent sponsorship in order to promote a local charity. Something that turned, if we’re being honest, some pretty average template kit efforts from designers Nike into all-time classic Villa kits sought after by collectors.
Across the coming season, 7500 to Holte would like to invite other fan groups, blogs, and influencers to put pressure on their clubs to #sponserthecommunity. Pressuring our clubs to do away with a white-label gambling sponsor on their sleeves and promote a charity, business, or institution central to their fan community. This is not to ask clubs to give up the income from their principal shirt sponsors but to simply ask them to give up a small amount of income and advertising space on their sleeves and to give back to their community who give their lives to the club.