Football’s addiction to gambling is odds-on to boom

Date published: Tuesday 2nd May 2017 8:00 - Sarah Winterburn

Last year Ladbrokes became the FA’s ‘official betting partner’. In this context the word ‘partner’ is one of those horrible and inaccurate marketing terms, designed to dress up common or garden advertising as something more than it really is.

The CEO was inevitably unable to avoid the obvious cliche: “Football is the holy grail of sporting sponsorship opportunities. We are absolutely delighted to have secured exclusive rights that will see Ladbrokes at the beating heart of the beautiful game.”

And there you have it. Gambling is very much embedded into the body politic of football. By binding itself to the governors of the game, it has brilliantly continued to normalise something which, when you stand back and look at it dispassionately, is quite an extreme and rather odd lifestyle choice.

As for the FA promoting an industry which, for years, took copious amounts of money from a player – whom the FA have now banned…at best it seems inconsistent and, at worst, downright hypocritical.

Personally, I see gambling as a flourishing pathogen passing itself off as healthy fun. If you’re in any doubt that it is an extreme choice, this week the Guardian reported that: ‘According to the most recent estimates, Britons lost £12.6bn through gambling last year, almost £300 per person, with 48% of people questioned by the Gambling Commission having admitted to gambling at least once in the previous month.’

That’s £12.6 billion just thrown away. £12.6 billion spent with absolutely nothing to show for it. And if that 48% figure is anywhere near accurate, we can see just how widespread it’s become in society. What’s more, the industry is expanding all the time, so much so that it has become a kind of financial matrix holding the whole of the game in its grip, handsomely funding it in order to profit from it, to ever greater degrees.

Before we think about how this has happened, let’s just consider the consequences of this financial colonisation. Clubs are boosted by gambling company money via multiple streams of sponsorship, (or ‘partnership opportunities’ as the marketing people in those pointy tan shoes would call it) allowing them to spend more on players and improve the club. The gambling ads surrounding football on commercial TV puts money into those broadcasters’ coffers, who in turn use it to bid for rights in order to provide us with football on our televisions, where the betting firms advertise once more to further expand the market.

Betting firms also provide revenue to myriad websites which rely wholly on advertising income for their existence, such as ourselves. You may think it’s hypocritical to worry about gambling whilst taking money from the industry, but what are we all to do? We have to take advertising money because, at least traditionally, readers resist paying for content on the internet, despite the concept of paying for consumption being well-established elsewhere in life. And the more ads there are, the more people gamble, which gives the companies more money to spend on more ads which means we can make a living. That’s how the betting matrix has plugged us all into its financial life-support system.

It’s also important to realise that while it might feel this is all being imposed onto us, it really isn’t. Our choices are feeding it. If no-one did ”ave a bang on that’, then it all goes away. If you paid a website such as ours a subscription fee, then all the betting ads could go away. If you don’t object to your club having less money to spend through not taking gambling sponsorship etc, then their presence evaporates. So as ever, ultimately it is the consumer’s responsibility. Supporters of the industry can rightly point to it all being a case of supply and demand. People want to bet and in expanding numbers. And that is true.

But how easy is it really to make a choice not to gamble? For some, very. For others, almost impossible. This isn’t a matter of having enough moral fibre and just taking responsibility for your actions, as some old-fashioned, out-of-touch ex-players said this week, as if addiction is that easily addressed. Such failures of understanding only exacerbate the situation.

When something becomes so ubiquitous, it’s easy to get sucked in. Most people are doing the school run, doing the 9-5, working too hard to make life easy, and even if they have the energy and understanding, just accepting the status quo is the path of least resistance and understandably attractive. So people sit back, soak it up and before you know it, gambling seems normal and unthreatening and we let it into our lives. And once the seed is planted, the plant will grow if watered regularly by all the exposure.

Well-funded, clever and ceaseless marketing can make anything irresistible to most people. When the lexicon of gambling and discussing ‘the odds’ becomes a common currency, which it has, when the language of betting is softened to make ‘a cheeky flutter’ seem unthreatening. When the FA has an official betting partner, when William Hill sponsor the Football Writers’ Association and the Sports Book of the Year, when Sky Bet is a commercial partner of The League Managers’ Association, when Sky Bet sponsor the Football League, when Gamble Aware, the organisation tasked with helping people with gambling problems, is actually funded by the gambling industry, what hope has the punter to not get involved and start losing his chunk of that £12.6 billion?

Each of us is vulnerable to quiet, internal psychological pressure and to peer pressure, too. Indeed, marketing’s job is to encourage both. Some might say this is a form of soft bullying, so seductive that we’ve let it happen without protest and maybe without even realising. Gambling is now at the heart of apparently respectable institutions and thus acquires respectability by cultural osmosis.

To better assess the effect of this, returning to Paul MacInnes’ Guardian piece this week:

‘Dr Sean Cowlishaw of Bristol University interviewed 1000 men aged 18 – 24 he found at least a quarter were showing signs of having a gambling problem. Cowlishaw says. “Most of what we know (about gambling harm) is through research and evidence heavily influenced by industry. Industry funds all the research in the country through Gamble Aware. The amount of money put up is incredibly small and the industry has been able to maintain control over the topics addressed.”‘

Five of Gamble Aware’s 13 trustees have direct links to the gambling industry. In the financial year 2015-16, it raised £7.6m in contributions from the gambling industry. Of that, it spent £919,654 on research. Meanwhile, £3,788,698 was given to the gambling harm treatment charity Gamcare. Of Gamcare’s 11 trustees, six have direct connections to the gambling industry.’

Now that sounds like one big mess of conflicts of interest. Many might think the industry sees Gamcare as little more than a PR defence measure, born from the full knowledge that problems are being stored up for the future by the online betting boom when 25% of 18-24 year-old men are already exhibiting issues around betting.

So what do we do? One way or another, we’re all hooked on the gambling pound. If football was filleted of gambling money, many would be poorer and out of work. Its roots are now very deep and wide. And yet there are signs that problems are growing, that it is making lives worse, making people worried, unhappy, and ironically spoiling the enjoyment of the sport itself.

Is this an addiction we’re prepared or able to break? I wouldn’t like to bet on it.

John Nicholson

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