by Mateusz Mazur

Financial Times Unravels the Mystery of Football’s Invisible Sponsors

Football has long been a global stage where fans passionately follow their favourite teams, but what if the sponsors adorning their beloved club’s shirts weren’t what they seemed?


Financial Times Unravels the Mystery of Football's Invisible Sponsors iGamingExpress

In a groundbreaking investigation, Financial Times, in collaboration with experts from across Europe, delved into the shadowy world of football sponsorship, unveiling a web of intrigue and concealed ownership that has left fans and regulators with more questions than answers.

The Cryptic Sponsors

Soccer pitches across the globe have become billboards for betting companies, and it’s not just the prominent display on jerseys that has caught the Financial Times’s attention. Those pitch-side hoardings and cryptic messages in languages like Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese have raised eyebrows. But who’s behind these sponsors, and where does their money come from? That’s where the investigation begins.

“I don’t think the football clubs really realize the provenance of the company that is actually sponsoring their shirt,” laments one football fan, echoing the sentiment of many supporters. It’s a valid concern given the potentially murky origins of some sponsors.

The Premier League’s Dilemma

The investigation focuses on Premier League clubs, the cream of English football, and their sponsorship deals with betting brands. The Premier League boasts a massive global audience, making it an attractive platform for advertisers aiming to reach Chinese customers within China, where gambling is largely illegal.

However, this is where the trail gets convoluted. To access the Chinese market, some betting brands resort to unconventional methods. They utilize shell companies, hide their ownership structures, and advertise on European soccer channels or events. This practice may indirectly promote illegal gambling in China, raising serious ethical and legal questions.

The Elusive Ownership

The investigation reveals that unravelling the ownership structures of these brands is akin to navigating a labyrinth. In the case of “138.com,” a sponsor of Watford FC and Newcastle United, the trail leads to an Isle of Man-based company called Xela Holdings. Yet, trying to identify the ultimate owner of Xela Holdings proves elusive.

This secrecy doesn’t just stop at obscure offshore companies. The investigation highlights the role of white-label providers in facilitating these sponsorships. These providers obtain gambling licenses in the UK and then offer their services to betting brands worldwide. The Gambling Commission, tasked with regulating this industry, relies heavily on these white-label providers to ensure due diligence, but the system has its flaws.

Clubs in the Dark

As we dig deeper into the results of the investigation, it becomes apparent that some football clubs might not even know who they’re dealing with. The investigation brings to light instances where companies like Tianyu and Yabo, supposedly sponsoring Manchester United, undergo rebranding and restructuring. The money trail leads to a perplexing web of subsidiaries, trademark registrations, and questionable affiliations.

Furthermore, evidence suggests that some sponsors may be involved in proxy betting, allowing Chinese citizens to gamble abroad while technically evading Chinese law. The complexities of proxy betting extend to a vast network of agents, making it difficult for regulators to combat.

The Call for Transparency

The investigation underscores the need for greater transparency and due diligence in football sponsorships, particularly when it comes to betting brands. Fans deserve to know who is behind the logos adorning their beloved club’s shirts, and regulators must ensure that they are not inadvertently facilitating illegal activities.

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