Rio Ferdinand’s move into the world of boxing comes with a caveat.
The former Manchester United defender’s venture into the ring might well be part of a long personal journey, and it will certainly come with immense risk to himself, but it was not borne out of his local ABC or a scramble up the youth ranks.
Ferdinand’s arrival on the canvas is backed by an online betting exchange – Betfair – and is the latest example of the gambling industry manipulating sport to promote their brand.
Former Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand is set to become a professional boxer
The former England international has signed up to Betfair’s ‘Defender to Contender’ challenge
The bookies have bet big on sport, and particularly football, for the best part of 15 years but in a saturated market – there are at least 509 gambling websites and 8,788 betting shops available to UK punters alone – standing out from the crowd has become a critical part of survival and growth.
But standing out doesn’t come by traditional means any longer. The entire sector has pumped money and expertise into promoting their brand, and industry advertising grew by 1,400 per cent between 2005 and 2012 according to Ofcom.
These days, more is required than the odd advertising hoarding or familiar TV spot – there is only far Ray Winstone and Chris Kamara can take you – while sticking your name on the front of a shirt is old hat (nine Premier League teams are sponsored by bookies).
Instead, viral campaigns and associations with high-profile sporting figures are essential when it comes to grabbing the public’s attention.
And so a mini power battle has developed between marketing teams desperate to outdo one another. Sport has been caught in the middle – a willing pawn in the game.
For so long there has been a clear leader in the field. Paddy Power’s knife-edge humour and love of a very visible gag dominated the competition for years.
Ferdinand is an avid boxing fan and has some experience of the training that he will encounter
Since ending his illustrious football career, Ferdinand is a regular on TV screens as a pundit
From placing its name in 50-foot high letters above Cheltenham racecourse during the famous Festival to convincing ex-Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner to unveil a pair of branded green pants to the world after scoring for Denmark, the Irish bookies know how to make an impact.
In 2015, they were a major player in David Ginola’s ill-fated attempt to rip the FIFA reigns from Sepp Blatter’s grasp – proposing to pay the ex-Spurs winger £250,000 over five months and having their name slapped all over the backboards at the opening press conference of the Frenchman’s ‘campaign’.
Other stunts included the chalking a tennis racket into the hand of the Cerne Abbas Giant – drawing a backlash from the National Trust – and flying sky-writing planes over Medinah during the 2012 Ryder Cup.
The ploy is simple – publicity, fast and furious publicity, whichever way it comes.
Such is the unabashed nature of the company’s PR, there is a specific role of Mischief Champion – held first by Harry Dromey, the son of Labour politician Harriet Harman, and taken on by Lee Price.
In a 2014 interview, Dromey explained the stance that Paddy Power have taken from day one. A stance many others have followed.
‘We like to see ourselves as an entertainment brand. If we can bring a bit of excitement to life by hijacking an event that few people are betting on, then we’ll do it,’ he said.
It is the second time Betfair have engaged in a major publicity project with a sportsperson
The betting exchange teamed up with Victoria Pendleton to get her to Cheltenham
Speaking to the Movidiam podcast two years later, Price admitted that: ‘Obviously, when you try to stand out you have to do things that are different, that are new, that are untried’.
And so a new era of guerrilla marketing was born.
Marketers and PR executives, struggling with a decline in traditional digital advertising and finding ‘competitive advantage’ hard to come by with the evolution of algorithms and bots that deliver targeted messages to large audiences, have had to come up with new ways of engaging with their audience.
‘The conclusion has been it’s all about reach – the further I can send my message. Don’t think about the idea, just think about the reach,’ Gareth Kane, the head of strategy at The Marketing Store, tells Sportsmail.
‘What ultimately they are doing with Rio Ferdinand, and as Paddy Power have been doing for years, is getting that reach and coverage that gets you competitive advantage.
‘Rio Ferdinand’s is a great story – we call it “disruptive”. It gets people talking about it.’
Betfair, who led the way in the shirt sponsorship department when they became the first gambling company to plaster their name on a Premier League kit at Fulham in 2002, are themselves savvy marketers and run a savagely smart PR operation.
By pinning themselves to Ferdinand, the company have also bought into his standing in the game as a former England international, his 2.4million followers on Instagram, his 9.3m followers on Twitter and a burgeoning reputation as an intelligent and insightful TV pundit.
That is not to question Ferdinand’s motivations for taking on the challenge – he has been open about the fact he is being paid to take part while also speaking eloquently and emotively about the gym’s role in helping him through the grief of losing his wife Rebecca to cancer.
The Olympic cyclist came fifth in the Foxhunters’ Chase at the 2016 Festival
Paddy Power used Nicklas Bendtner to promote their brand during Euro 2012
It is more to point out that he represents a potentially lucrative way in for marketers.
This is not the first time Betfair have launched a guerrilla-style campaign, either.
Their plans with Ferdinand follow an equally impressive sporting challenge laid down to Olympic cycling medallist Victoria Pendleton in 2015.
Pendleton, who swapped her pedals for a saddle and trained to be a jockey for a year before riding at the 2016 Cheltenham Festival, ended up finishing an extraordinary fifth in the Foxhunters’ Chase on board Pacha Du Polder.
It was the story of the day, on Gold Cup day, all but eclipsing the feature race’s champion Don Cossack in a triumph for the Betfair marketing department.
Like with Ferdinand, Pendleton was paid for her efforts – the fee reportedly in excess of £200,000 – while her training, horses and media campaign were all subsidised by the betting exchange.
‘It’s a really cost-effective way of extending reach beyond what competitors can do,’ says Kane.
The UK gambling industry has spent more than £500m in advertising since 2012, after all, of which £200,000 is a relatively small chunk for substantial exposure.
‘The big conversation in marketing right now is a shift away from digital ad spend because they know it’s not working and towards what we call “brand experience”. How can you turn it into something more engaging and immersive? This is effectively what they’re doing.
Paddy Power were also behind David Ginola’s brief bid to become FIFA president in 2015
‘They’re turning it into a story. People can follow that story, they can engage with it.’
Again like Ferdinand, Pendleton’s passion for the sport was never in doubt, but the amount of time and money invested in her by Betfair highlighted just how valuable these initiatives are to gambling giants.
Other companies have become involved, too. And it doesn’t always work out for the best.
SunBets – the joint project between the national newspaper and Australian bookmaker TabCorp – rose to prominence following the infamous Piegate episode of this year’s FA Cup fourth round.
Sutton United’s 20-stone goalkeeper Wayne Shaw – dubbed the Roly Poly Goalie by the media in the build-up to the clash with Arsenal – was a ludicrously short 8-1 to eat a pie live on air during the BBC’s broadcast of the game.
Eat the pie he did, sparking his departure from the club, an FA investigation and scrutiny from the Gambling Commission.
SunBets, who had vigorously publicised their novelty offer on social media in the build-up to the game, certainly generated more awareness of their brand.
Sutton United goalkeeper Wayne Shaw at a pie on the bench at odds of 8-1 with Sun Bets
But the reaction from within the marketing industry was wildly negative.
‘It’s car-crash PR at its worst, and a stunt that brings our industry into disrepute far more than Shaw for eating a pie,’ said Mark Perkins, director at MHP Communications.
Paddy Hobbs, head of sport at Pretty Green, said: ‘Nobody involved should be expecting an open-top bus parade to celebrate this one’.
The gambling industry has a balance to strike with their gimmicks – stopping ‘witty banter’ short of bringing the game into disrepute – but this sort of marketing does look set for the long haul.
‘Paddy Power wrote the rulebook on this,’ says Kane. ‘They deliver it with such aplomb, they’ve got that really cheeky chappy sense of humour and that’s probably stopped many other betting firms delivering it – not because it doesn’t work.’