Analysis: Was Paddy Power’s Huddersfield sponsorship stunt worth it?

The Irish bookie spun up its latest bit of PR magic this week, but could it damage the sector's already precarious reputation even further? Or does the company actually have something else up its sleeve?

Paddy Power is up to its old tricks once again. The Irish bookmaker is renowned for its irreverent marketing ploys, and the brand was once more on the tip of everyone’s tongues this week – this time for its controversial sponsorship of Championship football team Huddersfield Town.

The deal with the Terriers was first announced on Monday and immediately raised a few eyebrows, leaving many to question what Paddys is actually up to. The surprise agreement was notable for being Paddy Power’s first ever front-of-shirt sponsorship of an English football club, one which has just been relegated to the country’s second-tier division.

The timing of such a deal also seemed peculiar when gambling firms – at least those licensees with brands actually live in the UK – appear intent on rolling back much of the more overt marketing and advertising, particularly within sport. But what was even more peculiar was the release of the first batch of images of Huddersfield’s new kit for the 2019-20 season.

Huddersfield Town Paddy Power sponsorship

Paddy Power’s sponsorship of Huddersfield Town AFC has caused a stir in the UK media. Pic: Paddy Power

EGR had on Monday already reached out to Paddys for an interview about the sponsorship deal but were told the company would not be commenting until the kit had been revealed. Now we can see why. The shirt was emblazoned with a gigantic Paddy Power logo going from the bottom left corner to the top right which many people pointed out was more akin to a bridal sash than a traditional football shirt sponsorship.

Mischief makers

It’s almost certainly just another clever PR stunt by Paddy Power. The Football Association’s (FA) rules regarding shirt sponsorships are stringent and state they are restricted to: “One single area not exceeding 250 square centimetres on the front of the shirt”. That’s pretty clear cut. And it seems nigh on impossible that neither Paddy Power’s sponsorship team nor the commercial team at Huddersfield Town weren’t aware of that. The Daily Mail has, however, reported this morning that the FA could potentially fine Huddersfield for wearing the kit during last night’s friendly with Rochdale.

The images sent social media into absolute meltdown. Both Paddy Power and Huddersfield Town were soon trending on Twitter, where users designated the kit the worst since time immemorial. And it didn’t take long for the national media to run the story either, although the majority led with the social media/fan outcry angle before realising the whole thing was probably just an elaborate prank.

Most companies would kill for that kind of publicity. And in that respect, it was a job well done for Paddy Power. But what’s the angle? Has the operator just done this for the sake of a bit of PR, or does it actually have something else up its sleeve?

Much of the gambling industry seems to agree with the wider public that it’s the former, including a spokesperson at one of the UK’s biggest bookmakers who told EGR he thought it was simply another Paddy Power PR stunt, branding it an “absolute shambles” given the current climate.

The sponsorship deal has already drawn the ire of much of the public and media, and is in danger of damaging the industry’s already rather tattered reputation even further too. Shirt sponsorships have become an extremely potent weapon for politicians to use against the industry, particularly when half of all teams in the Premier League are now sponsored by gambling brands.

More than meets the eye

It was only a couple of weeks ago that the UK’s five biggest operators, including Paddy Power owner Flutter Entertainment, announced a range of responsible gambling measures in a rare show of unity from the market’s biggest players. Flutter CEO Peter Jackson was actually front-and-centre of that announcement, and said at the time: “The whistle-to-whistle advertising ban was a good start, now we are funding a significant expansion in treatment and we continue to work on a number of areas of collaboration and best practice. Our aim is nothing less than a step change in how we tackle gambling-related harm.”

The whistle-to-whistle TV advertising ban is due to come into force soon, while GVC is aiming to take the lead by pledging to end all shirt sponsorships. One source who works in gambling sponsorship believes this upcoming ad ban is the very reason for the Huddersfield sponsorship and claims the leaders of the aforementioned operators are likely to collectively put an end to all shirt sponsorship deals from next season.

But if the stunt is nothing more than opportunism, the rest of the industry won’t be thanking them for picking a period when a little time out of the spotlight is probably needed. “They [Paddy Power] do have a history of insensitive stunts at the wrong time in order to obtain publicity for their brand,” Brian Chappell of campaigning group Justice for Punters tells EGR Intel. “In this case, all it will do is provide more motivation to campaigners and politicians to ban all gambling advertising related to football. So, bad news for the industry all round.”

Such a view is echoed by James Grimes who, as part of the Big Step campaign, did a 124-mile walk around clubs that have a gambling sponsorship and asked them to review this relationship. “We visited Huddersfield Town on our first Big Step and we did so with the message that the prevalence of gambling advertisement creates gambling addicts,” he says. “Personally I think stunts like this hurt the industry now that more and more people are aware of or affected by problem gambling.”

There is, however, another possibility. Sources have told EGR that even Paddy Power is unlikely to have been so brash, and could in fact be gearing up for further announcements with a responsible gambling bent. Perhaps the sponsorship money will actually go towards charities or clinics set up to help gambling addicts? Or maybe the sponsorship funds will be donated to other charities like GVC did recently.

Paddy Power does indeed have a track record of working with charities for some honorable causes, such as its Rainbow Laces initiative with LGBT+ charity Stonewall aimed at tackling homophobia in sport. Last year, it also pledged to donate £10k to LGBT+ charities every time Russia scored in the World Cup.

Whatever Paddy Power is thinking, we can be fairly confident this isn’t the end of the story…

Paddy Power had not responded to EGR’s request for comment at the time of writing.

Flutter Entertainment | Football | Huddersfield Town | Marketing | Paddy Power | Peter Jackson | Shirt sponsorship