It is most definitely a sign of the times in this country that the one growth area in the increasingly bewildering and discredited world of finance has been that of the payday lender, and to say that this growth have been divisive would be something of an understatement. To some, payday lenders provide a service that simply didn’t exist a couple of decades ago. To others, though, they are a form of legalised usury who target the vulnerable in their advertising campaigns, whose adherence to the regulatory aspect of their job has at times been shaky, to say the least and whose interest rates penalise those amongst us who may be the least well equipped to pay them.
Over the last couple of years, payday lending has been creeping into football through the form of sponsorship, but this has not been without controversy itself. When Newcastle United agreed an £8m per year sponsorship deal with one payday lender in the latter months of last year, the leader of Newcastle City Council stated that he was “appalled and sickened” that the club had signed a deal with “a legal loan shark” whilst the same company which agreed that deal with Newcastle also continues to sponsor the shirts of two other clubs, Blackpool and Heart of Midlothian, although there have been successes for those that are campaigning against them, such as the Football League’s decision to drop the same company that sponsor Newcastle, Blackpool and Hearts from their website advertising last summer. Another such company, meanwhile, sponsors stands at Nottingham Forest and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The profile of football clubs, however, remains so high that they remain a target for and tempted by payday lenders in spite of the reservations that many have concerning their business practices. This week, however, has seen a demonstration of what can be done if supporters raise their voice as one and make their objections to such an agreement clear. Championship club Bolton Wanderers were relegated from the Premier League at the end of the season before last, and those parachute payments are not going to last forever. So it was that the club recently announced that it had agreed a shirt sponsorship deal with a payday lender to begin with effect from the start of next season. Newcastle United had come in for considerable criticism over their decision to sign such a deal, but Blackpool and Hearts hadn’t achieved quite the same level of opprobrium, might well have been the club’s thinking prior to agreeing the deal.
If this was indeed the case, the club was reckoning without the power of grass roots protest. Two local retailers pulled their advertising or sponsorship from the club for next season, whilst it only took twenty-four hours for a petition against the tied up to gain 1,500 signatures, a number which trebled over the coming days. Meanwhile, Stella Creasy, the MP for Walthamstow who has been campaigning against payday lenders for some considerable time, added her weight to the voices speaking out against this deal at a protest held outside Bolton Town Hall. She said on the matter that, “I can understand why the fans are unhappy, in the same way they are in Newcastle and Nottingham, because they don’t want to see their club used to promote this kind of toxic credit.”
The story became a heightened issue in Bolton following the death of one of the town’s residents, Alan Breeze, last year. Breeze took his own life, reportedly after being harassed for money by payday lenders over money that he had borrowed from them. Meanwhile, in an unconnected story, the lender that had become involved with Bolton, Quickquid, was recently criticised after an article published on its website advised users of ‘things you shouldn’t scrimp on’ – including ‘seeing the doctor’ and ‘regular dental check-ups’. A spokesman for the company responded to the criticism somewhat disingenuously, by stating that, “The article in question relates to one person’s financial advice, and does not suggest that a customer use the services of QuickQuid to pay for the services outlined in the image.”
In the face of this adverse publicity the club’s chairman, Phil Gartside, confirmed last night that the club had withdrawn from the sponsorship deal, with Gartside stating that, “We have worked for years to build trust and participation with the community through our Community Trust, education programmes, and other initiatives that are currently underway in partnership with local and national government.” The club’s sponsors for next season will now be FibrLec, a new Bolton-based sustainable energy company which is a technology partner with the local university, instead, which certainly seems like an organisation that supporters of the club can feel proud to be associated with.
Of course, it could be argued that the club should have been well aware of the death of Mr Breeze and that feelings in the town would run high with the announcement of such a tie-up. Indeed, the club’s statement acknowledges this in stating that, “Whilst we anticipated some negative responses from the initial agreement, we underestimated the adverse reaction to the sector of business in which the sponsor operated.” We might even acknowledge that the law of unintended consequences means that the payday loan sector has received more bad publicity from this episode than it might have done had the club refused to countenance a deal with them in the first place and this tempers any praise that the club might earn from its volte face, and the real winners for this episode were those that campaigned against it and it is also refreshing to see a football club acknowledging that its earlier decision was a misjudgement whilst iterating the importance of its relationship with its local community at a time during which many clubs often seem to behave in a way which sets them apart for the immediate environments in which they ply their trade.
Now, though, eyes will now likely turn back to Newcastle United, Blackpool and Heart of Midlothian to see if they review their arrangements – and there will be those amongst us who recognise the irony of a club in the financial predicament in which Hearts finds itself being sponsored by such a company – but in a broader sense it might be welcome to see the Premier League and Football League review whether such companies are appropriate to be the shirt sponsors of any of their member clubs. In the absence of any ruling on the subject, though, and with clubs themselves apparently at best reactive rather than proactive in not dealing with such companies, it is likely to remain down to campaigners and ordinary supporters to try and maintain some sort of moral compass on the matter. In that respect as well as others, last night’s announcement was a big victory for the supporters of Bolton Wanderers Football Club.
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