Northern Premier League chairman Mark Harris says the decision to allow BetVictor to become the new sponsor of their Step 3 and 4 divisions was discussed extensively at board level and has described the deal as “excellent news” for Non-League.
The online gambling company is now the main sponsor of the Northern Premier League, Southern League and Isthmian League for the next two years.
It is the first time all three leagues have been sponsored by a single brand and the long-standing Harris is delighted with the agreement.
“This has been the toughest sponsorship market probably on record; it’s a very, very tough market,” he told The NLP. “Sponsors don’t grow on trees and they certainly don’t queue up to get involved with you.
“It’s our job to try and professionalise the standards that we have at our level so commercially we are an attractive proposition.
“When you have one brand it enables you to package up football at our level. It’s part of the alliance strategy for the leagues to become more aligned in the way we operate, because these days no club stays in a division forever. We try to make it as seamless as possible for clubs when they do get moved. From our perspective we are very happy that one brand is covering all three leagues.
“It would be foolish of me to deny that in any sponsorship one of the most important things is obviously the commercial benefit this brings to clubs.
“At our level of the game we don’t have the beauty of a broadcast partner, which certainly has a massive impact on the amounts of monies that you can derive from a sponsorship.
“It is excellent news for the three leagues that a major, international brand recognises the opportunity but also recognises what we’re trying to do at our level of the game.”
The BetVictor deal came to fruition following a successful partner scheme with the Southern League last year, which then led to the other leagues becoming involved.
However, following the announcement, the leagues came in for criticism for opting for a betting company.
Betting either directly or indirectly on any football match or competition is banned worldwide for players, managers, match officials and club staff. It means a Step 4 player can’t bet on a Champions League game, for example, and there have been some high-profile fines handed out by the Football Association in recent seasons.
Harris concedes some of the negative reaction was expected.
“No one should go into any commercial relationship without evaluating not just the upsides but also the potential risks,” added Harris. “In the case of the Northern Premier League, when this opportunity first came on to the table it was discussed at length by the board.
“Our view was that there are many things in life that can be negative and in the same way we could say that drink encourages drinking, cigarettes encourage smoking, computer games encourage kids to be on their phones too much. The list can go on and on and on. Do we not go to confectionary brands because of obesity?
“I’m not about to enter the moral debate over gambling. What I would point to is that it’s not just the Northern Premier League, Isthmian League and Southern League who have betting partners. The National League has a betting partner in LV Bet and of course Sky Bet sponsors the EFL.
“The response is entirely what I would have expected because it is an emotive subject.
“All three leagues and BetVictor have a contractual responsibility to protect minors and vulnerable people. That means ensuring that there is no betting branding anywhere close to youth orientated activity or academy orientated activity.
“We are talking to gambling charities to see how we can get them involved in this to ensure the vulnerable are protected.
“Evidenced by the decision all three leagues have made through their respective boards we believed this is the right way to go forward.”
“One thing that I always say as Chairman of the Isthmian League is that we can’t please all of the people all of the time.
“There is a pack that has gone out to all of the clubs and until people read that they won’t know what is required of them.
“The fact of the matter is that BetVictor is one of the most strictly regulated sponsors that we have ever had. Their logo will not go on ground boards and there will be no advert in the programme. We would usually have the league sponsor on club passes but we are not going to do that on this occasion.
“As well at this, our youth league and our development league, which used to be on our senior website now have their own websites so we are taking enormous steps to protect youngsters.
“The league has not just taken the money because it is there, we are going to do things in a very responsible and adult way.
“What the Isthmian League has always done is put the majority of sponsorship money into benefits in kind so that all 82 clubs benefit. In the last couple of years we have had to cut down on these because the money just hasn’t been there so what we are hoping is that we can now keep these benefits going for a number of seasons.
“We want to make sure that we can sustain the future of the league so in the short term we can ensure that for example, clubs don’t have to pay for footballs and they get their liability insurance.
“We are very conscious of the fact that gambling can be an addiction and we are linking up with charities which focus on the effects of gambling. This week, one chairman contacted me saying that he has had a bad experience with a family member and because of that, while he accepts the sponsorship is for the good of the league, he may withdraw from his club.
“I told him, ‘let’s not do that, let’s see if we can work on this and actually use your experiences to help others.’
We had another club that wrote to us and said that whilst they did not agree with it, they can see that we have made the decision for the good of the majority of the clubs and I believe that is a very sensible way of approaching it.”
“To be fair I need to give the league a chance to be clear on exactly how the sponsorship will work but I am very concerned at the moment. We have been approached as a club by online betting companies in the past and we have always refused their money because it causes poverty and misery for so many people and online gambling addiction is now classified as a mental illness.
“We are a community club with thousands of youngsters who use our ground so my position is simple. I don’t want to be involved in advertising online gambling in any way at all and I am sure that the Isthmian league and Bet Victor wouldn’t want to advertise in a place which could either influence, be seen by or normalise online gambling to children.
“I can’t criticise the decision too much before I know the exact details of what is going to happen but do I think it is a good thing to align a Non-League football league with an online betting company? No, absolutely not but I suppose what the league decide to do is none of my business.
“As long as I am not being asked to either promote or advertise an online gambling brand in any way to the fans and thousands of youngsters and school students who use our pitch and the many junior teams that we have here then I won’t have a big problem with it.
“It is just a shame because I am sure that there are lots of sponsors who aren’t online betting companies who would have been a much more ethical choice but ultimately that is the business of the directors of the leagues.
“The league may come back and surprise me and say that they don’t need us to advertise BetVictor on our shirts or at the club and in that case I will not have a quarrel with them. I still wouldn’t think it was a good move but I wouldn’t protest against it.
“There have been a number of discussions privately and a few publicly with other chairmen in the league and people have a variety of different views on it. I think that a lot of chairmen would side with my view but maybe some others will think, ‘well gambling is already advertised everywhere so what is the problem with it?’ But that is something that I don’t agree with at all.
“It really doesn’t have to be this way – I looked to the leagues to try and lead the way in keeping the traditions of Non-League. We don’t want to become a mini Premier League where everything is about money because that takes away a lot of what we love about Non-League.”