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Sunday 17 March 2019

Is football addicted to gambling?

  • Football has become an enormously important part of the UK gambling industry. Young men who follow football are a key commercial target
  • 26 out of 44 clubs in the top two English leagues are sponsored by a betting company. The game has been saturated by gambling advertising
  • As evidence grows of the harm caused by addiction to gambling, the risk to fans and particularly to children is becoming apparent

By Ceri Thomas

The BBC, famously, does not take adverts. But it does show football and in 2017 researchers at Goldsmiths, part of the University of London, sat with a stopwatch to dissect its weekly Premier League highlights show, Match of the Day. It is heartland BBC with a bouncy theme tune straight out of the scarves-and-rattles era of football, but the programme is still a big deal (it’s a reasonable guess that most people in the UK would be able to hum the theme tune without any help).

And for a no-go zone for advertising, the researchers’ findings were striking: 33 out of the 85 minutes of Match of the Day – nearly 40 per cent of a programme watched by millions – featured on-screen advertising for gambling companies. There was sponsorship on shirts, adverts around the pitch, logos on the display panels in front of which managers did their post-match interviews. When it comes to football, gambling doesn’t just have the sprinklers on, it has saturated the game.

The question we asked at this week’s ThinkIn was ‘Is football addicted to gambling?’ We could have flipped it: ‘Is gambling addicted to football?’ When two things are so enmeshed it can be hard to figure out where one ends and the other begins. This is a phenomenon which is new to football in its extent if not in itself. The history of advertising attached to top-flight clubs and leagues in the UK has come in a series of waves: a wave of technology companies; a wave of finance companies, then alcoholic drinks. Now, a tsunami of gambling companies. Anyone who goes to matches or even watches football out of the corner of their eye on a pub television knows that something has changed. Alex Beale goes to games in London:

Alex (0:44)

Football matters in the conversation about gambling because it is the unmissable, gaudy, neon sign of a wider change. Since the UK deregulated gambling and allowed TV and radio advertising for the first time in 2007, betting has become a visibly greater presence throughout British life and culture. Football is only one industry which depends heavily on income from it – cruise ships and holiday resorts, perhaps more surprisingly, are others – and the impact has been very broad.

The Act of Parliament which liberalised gambling laws spoke the language of prevention and stated as one of its key objectives protecting children and other vulnerable persons from being harmed or exploited. It foresaw, perhaps as much as anyone could when it was written in 2005, the rise of online betting. But the gallop of mobile technology has trampled some of the Act’s intentions under its feet, and it did not protect Jack Ritchie. He was a child when he started gambling, and he took his own life at the age of 24 because of his addiction. His mother Liz was at the ThinkIn:

Liz (0:59)

The 12 years since the UK dramatically loosened its gambling laws have amounted to a great experiment. The betting industry cottoned on quickly to a world of new possibilities and profits and public policy has been running to keep up. In those dozen years, a lot has changed in the understanding of gambling as an addiction and its recognition as a public health issue; and the fierce moral clarity of people like Liz and Charles Ritchie, who set up a campaign group Gambling with Lives after Jack’s death, is urging the debate along.

But it is one thing to understand that gambling deserves a place alongside alcohol or tobacco, another thing to fully grasp its impact and the vulnerabilities of gambling addicts after such a short time. We have been drinking and smoking for hundreds of years, and carrying out serious research into both for decades. Our understanding of gambling is nowhere near the same level.

And there’s another factor: relatively speaking, cigarettes and alcoholic drinks don’t change much. We know what we’re getting into when we pick up a can of beer, and it’s not very different from ten or twenty years ago. But technology has fundamentally altered our ability to gamble at any minute of the day, as well as the potency of the experience. In high-frequency, online, in-play betting, we’re dealing with something which was profoundly different ten years ago and, twenty years ago, simply didn’t exist. As a result, Zoe Osborne who works as a campaign advisor to the charity Gamble Aware thinks we’re at an important moment.

Zoe (1:26)

The gambling industry often reaches for the concept of responsibility. We’re urged to gamble responsibly when perhaps “safely” might capture the risks better. And, of course, responsibility cuts both ways. How much of it rests with the industry? More than it is carrying right now.

In the UK, a voluntary levy on the profits of the big gambling companies is due to deliver £10 million by next month to be spent on education and research. Campaigners argue that the levy should be statutory and raised to 1 per cent of the industry’s profits, which would deliver £130 million. By way of a yardstick for that figure, the chief executive of one gambling company, Denise Coates of Bet365, paid herself £265 million in salary and share options this year.

It is a figure which could have been designed to convince the public that the gambling industry is more interested in fleecing the public than in social responsibility. The Senet Group whose job is to promote socially responsible marketing of gambling (it is independent but paid for by the gambling industry) is looking for cool heads in this hot environment. Its chief executive is Sarah Hanratty.

Sarah (0:28)

If you wanted to set about creating the conditions for a regulatory crackdown on an industry – a desperate lack of public trust, excess profits, massive salaries, a growing awareness of societal harm – right now gambling would hit the jackpot on every measure. The first sign that the industry in the UK is aware that it’s in a hole came with the announcement that it had decided no longer to run TV adverts within live football matches (the half-time ad breaks have been full of gambling adverts, now there’ll be none from “whistle to whistle”). Good as far as it goes, the critics said, but the companies spend five times as much on other sorts of advertising. The crowd at the ThinkIn seemed united in many respects, but one in particular: the gambling industry needs to act decisively and soon to restore trust and mitigate harm. Its track record suggests it might struggle to do that before a big, legislative stick lands.