Today
Fri 7 May 2021

Nathan O’Hagan argues that regulations on the gambling industry in football are not nearly enough to tackle addiction

Most football fans of a certain age will have memories of being dragged into smoke-filled betting shops on the way to the match while their dad placed a quick bet. While this low-level gambling has long been part of the match-going experience, today there is a new culture of online betting that has become almost synonymous with the sport. Advertising for it around the football grounds is omnipresent and it looms over match broadcasts.

Half the teams in the Premier League have gambling logos emblazoned across the front of their shirts as their main sponsors. This extends to 10 of the 24 clubs in the Championship. Stoke City even plays its home games at the Bet365 Stadium. 

Anti-gambling groups had some success in cutting this advertising before the start of last season by persuading betting firms to voluntarily introduce a ‘whistle-to-whistle’ ban. This outlawed advertising during live broadcasts but as it only covers half-time, this measure is wholly inadequate given the scale of the problem.

Sky and other broadcasters have indeed increased the amount of time dedicated to build-up and post-match analysis. They incorporate cutting-edge technology to help their pundits dissect the minutiae of every aspect of featured games. These longer programmes mean more ad breaks, and even with the self-imposed whistle-to-whistle ban, it means ample opportunity for gambling firms to hawk their wares.

During Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football coverage on 31 November, there was a total of 18 pieces of gambling-related advertising during the pre- and post-match coverage of the two featured games. The programme itself was also labelled as “in association with” Bet365.


Gambling Everything

One person commits suicide every day as a direct result of gambling addiction in the UK. Yet celebrities regularly pop-up on adverts to imply a glamour to betting on everything from goal-scorers to the number of corners that will be awarded in a match. Just as there is no fragment of the game that is not analysed down the last molecule, there is now no aspect of the game that you can’t bet on.

Even the interviews with players and managers before and after the games take place in front of screens plastered with advertising that feature at least one gambling company. If a player stops to take a throw-in, the chances are they’ll be doing so in front of electronic hoarding carrying the logo of yet another online betting platform.

All these adverts do feature the Gamble Aware logo, and some companies have added half-hearted cautionary slogans such as “when the fun stops, stop” or even “bet responsibly”. But of course, the last thing these companies want is for anyone to stop or bet responsibly.

These slogans feel like nothing more than tokenistic gestures – pushing responsibility back onto the user. How can a problem gambler, or somebody in the grips of a full-blown addiction be expected to “gamble responsibly” when they are bombarded with messages that tell them how easy it is to place a bet, and how many available platforms there are to do so? 

Premier League teams stopped featuring alcohol companies on their shirts ever since the 2017/18 season, but this simply created a void into which gambling has moved in. It has replaced one harmful and addictive substance with another. Some clubs have made the unilateral decision to no longer accept sponsorship from gambling companies, often due to pressure from fan groups. But even if all clubs took this stance, as with the banning of alcohol sponsorship, this would only be addressing part of the problem.


A Multi-Million Pound Industry

The relationship between top-level football and gambling has become symbiotic in recent years. The annual income from gambling on the Premier League is estimated at £70 million, while in the Championship the figure is around £40 million. With such sums at stake, it’s easy to be sceptical about how serious the game is in dealing with the issue. And it isn’t just the fans who need some level of protection from gambling; it’s the players too. 

There are tight restrictions on players placing bets on football but, unsurprisingly, there are several notable examples of players receiving bans for breaching these rules. Most notably, Joey Barton was banned for 18 months in 2017 after being found to have gambled on over 1,200 matches over a 10 year period. This included matches in which he’d played. Barton was sanctioned with an 18-month ban from football at the age of 34 and as he was on a short term contract with Burnley, this effectively ended his career.

“I have fought addiction to gambling and provided the FA with a medical report about my problem. I’m disappointed it wasn’t taken into proper consideration,” he said in a statement on his own website at the time. “If the FA is truly serious about tackling the culture of gambling in football, it needs to look at its own dependence on the gambling companies, their role in football and in sports broadcasting, rather than just blaming the players who place a bet.”

While there are few places where it is more prevalent than in football, the culture of online gambling, and gambling in general, is a wider societal issue that neither begins nor ends with football. Gambling, like anything else with addictive properties, can be indulged in without harmful side effects. Just as the majority of people who drink don’t become alcoholics, the majority of people who place a bet on the football on a weekend won’t become gambling addicts.

But the damage wrought by addiction is so deep that both the sport and the television companies have to take some responsibility. The broadcasters and the game’s governing bodies have a duty of care to the people who fill the grounds and subscribe to their channels, and this is a duty of care in which all involved are currently failing. 


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