Football Needs To Be Weaned Off Its Gambling Addiction

by | Jul 20, 2019

It’s the way of the modern world, isn’t it? Engage a public relations firm to set off a stunt that you know will piss a lot of people off, and then issue a big reveal saying that, no actually, we meant the exact opposite of what we originally said, look at all those pious people getting on their high horses, don’t they look stupid now? The public relations industry was in its most nauseatingly obnoxious mode last week, slapping itself on the back over the Huddersfield Town shirt stunt, but they should probably beware the rule of intended consequences. On this occasion, the high profile nature of such a stunt at such a time of year has primarily served to shine a further light on the increasingly unhealthy relationship between the professional game and gambling.

Forty-six years ago, the Isthmian League became the first league to accept a sponsor’s name. The sponsors in this case were a cigarette company, Rothmans, and their sponsorship of the league lasted from 1973 until 1977, when it was taken over by Berger Paints. Such a sponsorship deal would, thanks to the ban on tobacco advertising, not be permitted today, and it’s easy to see the parallels between this and the deal signed this summer by the Isthmian, Northern Premier and Southern Leagues with a gambling company for a sponsorship deal that will cover 228 clubs across the three leagues. Add the Football League’s ongoing deal with Skybet and this means that all bar three of the top eight levels of the English league system – the exclusions being the Premier League and the three divisions of the Natoinal League – are now sponsored by gambling companies.

It doesn’t end there either, of course. Ten Premier League clubs will be wearing shirts adorned with the names of betting companies next season, as well as seventeen out of the twenty-four clubs in the Championship. It’s impossible to switch on a televised without receiving numerous unsolicited requests to join in-game betting or to take advantage of generous-sounding offers for registering with a bookmaker and downloading their app during the advertising breaks. It’s relentless, and its creep has been so gradual that many probably haven’t even noticed just how all-encompassing it has become. 

Over the course of the last ten or fifteen years, professional football and gambling have become intertwined in a way that has become increasingly difficult to defend, and it now feels as though we are saturation point, a level that nobody can ignore any more. The matter has reached parliament and there is growing concern at the extent to which gambling is now visible within football, to the point that the Labour Party has, should it ever be re-elected to power, already pledged to ban betting companies from shirts should it be unable to persuade the Football Association of the merits of a voluntary ban.

Perhaps the worst part of the current situation is that the game’s governing bodies know how problematic this is, but that they are simply not acting on those concerns. The FA has already brought in a ban on youth teams from wearing clothing that displays products considered ‘detrimental to the welfare, health or general interests of young persons’ – and this is a list which includes gambling. In 2017, the FA announced it was ending its sponsorship deals with betting companies and terminated a contract with Ladbrokes worth about £4m a year. This was two years ago, and no firther action has been taken since then. The gambling industry is very good at skirting around rules. It feigns contrition over problem gambling for so long as it takes to get potential regulators off their back, but still the saturation of the market continues.

I can even offer some anecdotal evidence of how seriously they take it. Twenty years ago, I managed a betting shop, and as part of the training at the start of the job we were told that we shouldn’t accept money from customers who were displaying signs of being a “problem gambler.” The problem was that we weren’t given any advice on how to have this potentially difficult conversation with someone who we likely wouldn’t know that well. There were some leaflets we could hand out, but when asked how we could the signs of a problem gambler, or how we could have such a conversation in a way that wouldn’t be considered patronising or insulting, we were met with a blank face upon which the implication was clear. It was a face that said: ‘You don’t think we’re actually serious, do you? I have to say this to you, but no-one expects you to act upon it.’

I know of nobody who ever even considered having that conversation with a customer. Some didn’t want to affect the figures for their shop. Others didn’t want to prod a potential hornets nest, or didn’t really feel that it was any of their business. Managing a betting shop was, at the time, job business that paid terribly badly for long and frequently unsociable hours, with the potential threat of getting held up always in the background. A busy betting shop in the 1990s was a potentially combustible place, and few shop managers or assistant managers wanted the responsibility of being a counsellor to problem gamblers.

I worked there for three years and I don’t recall any managers ever having that conversation, but to suggest that there were no problem gamblers within these shops would be utterly absurd. Every single shop had a handful who’d  spend their entire day poring over the Racing Post whilst betting on each and every single race, each convinced that they were just one small logical leap or slice of luck from a revelation or win that would change their lives for the better. They never did, of course.

Twenty years on, the gambling industry is practially unrecognisable from the (literally) grubby, smoke-filled industry that employed the likes of me. In shops, Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (which are nothing more that ever so slightly more sophisticated fruit machines) came to rule the roost, and the problem became so widespread that the government eventually did step in to drastically curtail their use. Even then, though, two gambling companies (including the “lads” at the heart of last week’s Huddersfield Town japery) were threatened with sanctions after seeking to circumvent those rules. In March 2018, the name of a gambling company had to be removed from Newcastle United’s youth team shirts. They’ll push and push, as far as they can.

News of the Isthmian, Southern and Northern Premier League sponsorship deals provoked dismay across the non-league game, with particularly outspoken critcism of the deal coming from Paul Dipre, the chairman of Isthmian League club Carshalton Athletic. Dipre issued a statement on behalf of the club outlining his concerns (PDF here), and several days later reported back that he had been contacted by the league, who had confirmed that “goes some way to moderating the risks of exposing children to online gambling advertising. Clubs will now not be required to advertise BetVictor on jerseys nor on advertising boards. Good first steps.” It’s a start, agreed. But it isn’t enough. Others, meanwhile, wondered how it could possibly sit comfortably with anybody that leagues and clubs could be sponsored by companies promoting something that players, managers, officials and more are banned from doing. The current rules ban “club representatives” from any form of football-related gambling. Would this come to mean all volunteers at non-league matches?

A report by the charity Gamble Aware found that young, unmarried men who are unemployed but looking for work are considered most at risk of developing a problem, and that those with a gambling problem were spending an average of £98 a day, placing up to 90 bets and were more likely to gamble in the middle of the night. With non-problem gamblers spending an average of £14 per week, and almost entirely on Saturdays, critics argued that it was easy to see why gambling companies were so sluggish in their responses over problem gambling. Problem gambling was very lucrative for them. Self-regulation, is abundantly clear, has failed time and time again. Regulation is necessary.

So, perhaps we should be grateful to the betting company concerned for the reminder of who and what they are, and for bringing this particular subject back to the top of the news cycle. There’s a chance – only a small one, but a chance nevertheless – that the attention gathered by this story will finally prompt the Football Association to do something about the virulent spread of gambling across the professional game. The gambling company and its public relations representatives were feeling pretty pleased with themselves over their little stunt at the end of last week, but they should probably pay a little more attention to the history of the game. Rothmans, the producers of a toxic and highly addictive product, were the first sponsors of a football league in this country, and just look at what happened to tobacco advertising. It is to be hoped that gambling advertising goes the same way.