by Terri Westgate
Newly promoted FA Premier League club Norwich City have caused huge controversy this week by announcing a major sponsorship deal with a gambling company which uses images of women that were common place in the 1970s. Terri emphasises just how offensive and what a retrograde step the club’s announcement was.
I started attending football matches back in 1990, with my first visit to Carrow Road to watch my local team Norwich City in the old First Division. I was a fresh faced 16-year-old and stood on a terrace amongst a mostly male crowd. Back in those days anytime a young woman walked in front of the stand she was serenaded with a chant of “Get your t*ts out for the lads”. I was often mocked for only being interested in looking at players legs (something to this day I have never understood, why would you stand in the cold for two hours on a January afternoon to look at legs?). A few years later I was accosted by supporters of my own team on a train, who declared I knew nothing about football and demanded I explain the offside rule. Although I was angry, to this day I am proud that I managed to contain myself enough to give an accurate description before leaving for another carriage.
This not uncommon behaviour put some people off going to football, and fed into the negative stereotype of fans that prevailed. I persevered partly because I was defiant that I wouldn’t be kept from something that brought me so much joy, and partly because I was surrounded by casual sexism in my everyday life. I grew up in the 1980’s when page three models were national stars and the advertising industry was awash with misogynistic imagery and straplines. I had been told many times that I couldn’t do something “because I was a girl”, and as I reached puberty I became acutely aware of how I would be sexualised by the world, and how I had to change my behaviour and even my clothes to safely navigate the world.
None of this will surprise any woman; recent research has shown that nearly all women (97%) have experienced sexual harassment. However, things have got better at football since the 1990s as clubs have worked with fans to eliminate sexist and homophobic chants, to make grounds more inclusive. My club Norwich have worked with many fan groups making sure everyone who wants to cheer on the Canaries feels welcome. As a result, the newly promoted team has an above average percentage of season ticket holders who identify as female. Famously we are also part owned by a woman, which is a rare thing still in the beautiful game.
On Monday 7th June 2021 the club announced their new sponsorship deal, yet another online gambling firm – which in itself has many issues. However, within minutes of watching the glitzy intro video fans started to visit the website and social media accounts of the new partner – BK8, and what they saw shocked. It was a sea of photos of young women in sexualised imagery, to the point that you had to work hard to even know that BK8 had anything to do with gambling. Impetus has decided specifically not to reproduce any of these photos as they are a completely unacceptable depiction of women.
That a company in 2021 was using promotional tactics that would be at home in The Sun from the last millennium was appalling. But that a self-proclaimed “family club” had chosen to be associated with the brand was confounding. Supporters of all genders and ages began to express their disgust and disappointment with a growing ferocity on Twitter. Local and national media picked up the story, and fans’ disapproving voices were across the news. Emails to the club were publicly posted, and an almost united opposition to the deal was expressed.
But how did it come to this? If the supporters had found this content within minutes, then the club must have been aware of it. It is a multi-million-pound deal that would have been weeks, if not months, in the making. All kinds of checks and legal proceedings will have happened before anything was signed. And yet still it went ahead, without the club even asking for any content to be removed.
This means that they were aware and decided the money involved was worth the risk. Norwich City are a self-funding club. They have no billionaire backer with cash to burn, unlike most of their Premier League rivals. They have to generate money to be able to invest in players, and the gap between the Championship and the top flight means that survival is no longer achieved with a canny boss and a young and upcoming squad. You have to spend big. If you don’t have the reserves to compete in the transfer market you either have to risk a large debt (which can go disastrously wrong, ask Bolton Wanderers’ fans) or you have sell yourself to the highest bidder.
Norwich City has made the decision that money is king, and either underestimated the backlash or figured they can ride it out. The thing about football fans is we are incredibly loyal, and the majority of Canaries supporters have already paid for their season ticket for the upcoming campaign. The only likely financial hit is a drop in shirt sales, and that might only be a dent in comparison with the size of this contract.
However, the damage done to the relationship with the supporters is not so easily repaired. Norwich is a community club; in recent years it has had open communication with the fans who have turned out in numbers and worn their colours with pride. So much good work was undone on Monday, all the progress made since the 1990’s has been undermined.
So, I ask myself, is promotion worth it? All that joy and elation at winning the league is deflated with the realisation that our club had sold its soul, and the values it had previously professed now seem superficial. Our majority shareholders have said they are guardians of club, rather than owners. Right now, they have failed in those duties, they have taken their eye off the ball and brought our beloved club into disrepute.
Terri Westgate is a Norwich City fan who writes a regular column for the Eastern Daily Press and regularly appears on BBC Radio Norfolk talking about the team.