Wayne Rooney, Derby County and 32Red: An Unethical Marriage made in FFP Heaven

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Wayne Rooney, Manchester United legend and England’s second most-capped player of all time, is set to return to English football as a player-coach with Derby County once the current MLS season comes to a close in January.

So far, so good. On the face of it, there isn’t much fishy about a professional footballer winding down his playing career at a lower level and looking to find a route into management.

Except that there is.

Rooney will wear No. 32, representative of bookmaker 32Red, the Rams’ primary sponsors. The Gibraltar-licensed firm, who also sponsor Championship sides Leeds United, Middlesbrough and Preston North End, are paying him handsomely in return. So handsomely, in fact, that Derby probably couldn’t have afforded the transfer without their involvement.

Of the reported £7,500,000 Rooney will earn from his contract with the club, 32Red are putting up a staggering 80 per cent. Derby are essentially paying one of the biggest names in twentieth century football just over £20,000 per week.

To some, that may appear to be emblematic of the shrewd business sense required to survive and thrive in a cut-throat Championship which offers riches beyond compare to its most successful operators.

It probably is, but that doesn’t make it ethical.

There are strict regulations on shirt sponsorships in football, one of which is that bookmakers’ logos cannot be blazoned across replica children’s shirts. As such, many football clubs with bookmakers for sponsors put charities on children’s replica kits instead. Another is that sponsors cannot occupy “one single area not exceeding 100 square centimetres on the back of the shirt”.

Come January, Pride Park will undoubtedly be swarming with young Derby fans with Rooney’s name and a betting company’s number on their backs.

Given that it is obviously illegal for children to gamble, and that there are clear and ignored safeguarding issues within a betting industry whose favourite ‘at least we’re doing something’ measure – that being their “when the fun stops, stop” slogan – was last week shown to have no significant effect on compulsive behaviour by a University of Warwick study, it is an incredibly dangerous decision.

But it is not a surprising one, either.

Derby have acquired a rare taste for big names in recent seasons, with Frank Lampard, Philip Cocu and now Rooney all coming aboard as members of staff in the last year. Those names don’t come cheap, and thus seeing County chairman Mel Morris attempt to keep the gravy train flowing with what is nothing more than a dressed-up version of third-party ownership shouldn’t come as too much of a shock.

Morris attracted the ire of a few Championship chairmen (but the blind eye of the majority) earlier this year for selling his club’s stadium to himself in order to bolster their revenue and thus make sure they didn’t fall foul of pitifully enforced Financial Fair Play legislation.

Furthermore, with gambling firms making ever greater inroads into an increasingly commercialised sport as well (BetVictor have recently sponsored the Northern Premier League – covering northern non-league divisions at steps seven and eight of the pyramid), it would be farcical to imagine anything else from two parties with equal and astounding contempt for sporting morality and customer wellbeing.

The responses of the FA and the Football League have been as non-existent as those of the Gambling Commission, an organisation which supposedly aims to protect children and young people from the influence of bookmakers. Amid scrutiny, the FA has said it is monitoring the situation, unable to act decisively until the shirt becomes live in January. The others are silent.

In their inaction and their silence, they are complicit. Laughably so, but not surprisingly so. That is the saddest part of this mess.

Image: GSankary via Flickr and Creative Commons

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