English football and gambling, a problematic relationship

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A brief history of Villa kit sponsorships from 2004 to present; DWS Investments, 32 Red, FX-Pro, Genting Casinos, Dafabet, BR88 (sleeve sponsor), Intuit Quickbooks, Unibet and W88. Notice anything? Of nine sponsors covering almost seventeen years, six have been gambling companies, that’s 66% of sponsorship for that period.

If you widen your gaze to the rest of English football’s top two divisions, the monopoly continues. Half of all current top-flight clubs have a gambling shirt sponsor and seventeen of twenty-four second-tier sides. When you account for non-kit sponsorships or partnerships, then 75% of the Premier League take the bookies cash, and 87% of Championship do the same.

What’s clear is that gambling has a gargantuan presence in English football. A typical experience watching professional English football, particularly in the top flight and Championship, or to give it its full name, The Sky Bet Championship, is awash with gambling. Fans are treated to gambling advertising and opportunities everywhere they look, shirt sponsors, official partners, advertising hoardings, the physical presence of bookmakers inside grounds, it is unrelenting.

Having been ruminating on the amount of gambling in football (a Goldsmiths University report covered by the Guardian found gambling sponsors to be on-screen between 71% and 89% of the time during Match of the Day programmes in 2018 for example, I took to Twitter to canvass the opinions of Villa fans and the wider football community. At the time of writing the poll, I posted was 85% in agreement that gambling has too great a presence in English football.

In the interests of transparency, I should say I gamble on football, not huge amounts, or with regularity, but it’s something I enjoy from time to time. I should also add that I’m awful at it. Despite being someone who, I would like to think, has a good knowledge of the game, I invariably lose. Thankfully, I have never chased losses or become enthral to the process, although I can see its appeal.

Supporters experience

I wanted to find out how other supporters experience and interact with football gambling, so I gathered opinion from average football fans, people who described themselves as problem gamblers and even a betting shop manager with a decades experience in the industry.

The feedback confirmed the suspicions I held, that the prevalence of betting in football has the potential to contribute to the level of gambling addiction in this country. One problem gambler described the issue like this:

“I believe that the relationship between football and gambling is the foundation of gambling problems in this country. I believe there are tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of problem gamblers in the UK, the majority not receiving any help for their addiction”

The individual in question went on to describe the depth of the partnership and the intrinsic link that now exists:

“The introduction of markets for every single incident in a game means that you could feasibly lose any amount of money on an almost minute by minute basis. The introduction of every game played worldwide being available to bet on means you can bet 24/7”

It’s easy to see how problem gamblers may find the consumption of football impossible. It must be a tortuous, claustrophobic experience, with the painfully tantalising carrot of betting being dangled in front of you constantly. Those I spoke with that struggled with gambling addiction described to me how the disease had altered their relationship with football, and in some cases, obliterated it.

“It largely killed football for me. I used to be a Soccer AM, Soccer Saturday, evening Saturday game and all games on Sunday kind of guy, now I struggle to get interested in anything but Villa”.

Gambling addictions

The impact gambling addiction had on the lives of those I spoke with was shocking, £40,000 worth of debt, relapses and the destruction of relationships with those around them. Thankfully those that shared their stories with me had found a route to recovery, not all are so fortunate. Figures vary but it is estimated that somewhere in the region of 500 people in the UK commit suicide as a result of gambling issues each year. It is hard not to think that those types of numbers might be lower if there wasn’t such an unyielding torrent of gambling promotion given its platform via the nation’s most popular sport.

I was interested to establish if the people I spoke with, particularly the problem gamblers, felt the football and betting authorities were doing enough to address a growing issue.

There have been initiatives such as the whistle to whistle prohibition, which prevents sports betting being advertised during a live televised sport prior to 9 pm (other than horse racing), as well as the warnings accompanying advertisements, but is enough being done?

Opinions were split on this aspect, our problem gamblers felt that the bookmakers were only paying lip service in terms of support.

“Let’s be honest here, they do what they’re legally mandated to do. Saying ‘when the fun stops stop’ at breakneck speed at the end of an ad is far from enough”

“There’s no aftercare, I had to a lot of searching to find some counselling and it wasn’t much of a standard”

Different perspective

Our betting shop manager, who is also a football supporter had a different take.

“The gambling industry is very heavily regulated and has many player protection measures in place in order to do our best to keep problem gambling to a minimum. There are many schemes available such as self-exclusion, MOSES (multi-operator self-exclusion scheme), Gamcare and of course the staff who work in betting offices, who are trained and regularly updated and briefed on their responsibilities towards problem gambling. Problem gambling is a horrible vice and unfortunately is part of the industry, but, I can say hand on heart that I do believe that the industry is doing as much as possible to help and support people with a problem.”

The issue of football’s relationship with gambling is a messy one, there is accountability on all sides. Football clubs take the bookie pound, bookies themselves incessantly advertise their promotions to captive audiences and gamblers, as adults, have the capacity to say no.

What’s crystal clear is that like much in the modern world, scaling back would be a good thing. The sheer level of involvement of gambling organisations in English football has led to a questionable but financially lucrative relationship that’s hard for both parties to walk away from or at least see less of each other.

For me, football clubs need to show a stronger moral fibre, I’m not suggesting they opt out of all gambling partnership, but, at least demonstrate a greater understanding of the potential for harm and commit to a reasonable reduction. Football clubs and gambling companies need to also work in coordination with one another to strengthen the safeguards for problem gamblers and ensure a comprehensive aftercare program for those that suffer.

Modern football has an untold influence on its audience, it must be cautious in its approach to what is marketed.