This week families who lost loved ones through gambling addiction took part in a protest march from Manchester to Liverpool via the cities’ famous football clubs to demand reform of the industry.
Journalist Lewis Finney, who works for the Bolton News, became so concerned about the problems of gambling in sport that he dedicated a masters degree thesis to the subject. Lewis, a Leeds Utd supporter, who did an MA in Multimedia Journalism at Manchester Metropolitan University, created a podcast which made the top twenty in the football world. He explains why it matters and what’s at stake.
DID you know that, in the UK, 86 per cent of online betting profit comes from five per cent of customers? We call this minority ‘problem gamblers’.
Did you know that there are over 400 gambling-related suicides every year nationwide, the equivalent of over one every day?
Did you know that there are over 55,000 children in this country that are addicted to gambling?
Did you know that the Government pledged as part of their manifesto for the 2019 General Election to review the 2005 Gambling Act, with a major focus on sponsorship and advertisement within sport – specifically football?
Did you know that in the last couple of weeks as I’m writing this in early July 2022, there are now rumblings that Tory ministers are looking to dial back on how the reviewed Gambling Act will look?
I’m not a problem gambler, and I never have been. I place the odd bet on the football and have been known to go to the races and flutter some money away in the name of enjoyment. I have no issue with gambling as a concept.
I entered, and became sensitive to, the debate around the reform and re-regulation of the gambling industry for a somewhat selfish reason. In early 2020 I was searching for a topic for my dissertation project for my Masters in Multimedia Journalism – a podcast I eventually published under the name ‘Gambling and Football – A Complicated Relationship’.
Sport was my obvious go-to – football has been a part of my daily life for as long as I can remember. Scrolling through Twitter one day, I noticed a report by the excellent Martyn Ziegler at The Times – ‘The biggest shake-up of gambling laws in Britain for 15 years could lead to restrictions of football clubs’ shirts carrying the names of betting companies’.
Gambling adverts in sport had been bothering me for years. Mostly because I found them annoying – interrupting every possible gap in a broadcast that did not contain people kicking a ball. And then when you start to look closer, even the kicking part is one huge advert. The rapid growth and insidious strengthening of the relationship between my beloved football and betting companies has been all to evident and noticeable for someone who grew up and gained a social consciousness during, and in the aftermath of, Tony Blair’s government – the less said about that administration the better, but it was they who deregulated the gambling industry, ultimately allowing it reach the point we are at now, with the gambling being ubiquitous within the game. You cannot separate one from the other.
Betting firms sponsor matchday shirts, training gear, stadiums and leagues. They advertise on television and radio broadcasts, on podcasts and social media, throughout stadiums and on pitch-side advertising hoardings, on post-match interview walls and in matchday programmes, on websites and on billboards. If you engage with football in any way, shape or form, there is quite literally no escape from the greedy, tempting arms of the gambling industry.
Now think for a moment – imagine, if you can, that you are addicted to an illicit drug. Let’s say heroin. Imagine your every waking thought is about how you can find your fix for that day. Imagine the dangerous and illegal lengths you might have to go through to get that sweet release that allows you to hold your demons at bay for a short while. Now imagine that heroin is not only legal, but it is readily available in your pocket, and you are actively encouraged to take it at every available opportunity. What do you think you would do? Because I’m pretty sure I’d be chasing that dragon.
While researching for the podcast, I spoke to various former problem gamblers, and this is the picture they painted. They call it the invisible addiction. There are no noticeable symptoms. No tell-tale signs that someone is suffering, and it’s extremely easy to hide it from even your closest friends and family. There is also a lot of shame attached to gambling addiction, which something that young men – the dominant demographic affected by this issue – often struggle to deal with. Thankfully, this sort of stigma is beginning to be addressed, but there is still much work to be done.
The more I researched and the more people I spoke to connected with both industries, the more I understood just how unfair it is. Not on me. Not on the vast majority of football fans. Not even on the vast majority of bettors. But on that 5 per cent, where the vast majority of the money is being made. The people who are borrowing money they cannot afford to pay back to fund their habit. The ones who, despite deciding to self-exclude themselves from betting apps, are still getting emails tempting them back in with a free bet. The ones who cannot simply switch on the game they love for a bit of escape from whatever stresses they have in their lives without being accosted by the gluttonous gambling gods.
I haven’t even mentioned children yet. A 2019 study found that just under half of young people (46 per cent) were able, unprompted, to name at least one gambling brand. I can use myself as a case study. My club, Leeds United, have had a succession of betting sponsors – previously 32Red, a name that most football fans and bettors in the Britain will recognise, and in the last few years SBOTOP, a gambling company that operates predominantly in Asia and is not even active in the UK – there’s a huge debate with regards to this there but that is for another time. Back when I was a child, Leeds’ shirts were sponsored by Strongbow cider, and subsequently by Whyte and Mackay whisky. I have a distinct memory of asking my parents what Whyte & Mackay was, and despite never touching a drop of Whyte & Mackay in my life, as far back as I can remember I could have told you that it was whisky, before I even really knew what whisky was.
There are some meagre attempts to protect children these days. If fans of football teams with betting companies sponsoring their playing shirts buy one in a child’s size it will display a different, non-betting sponsor. Forgetting for a second that a child wearing a shirt different to the adult version being worn by their immediate role models will likely feel othered and long for the betting clad variety, they will still be seeing all the same pushy advertising that everyone else sees on match day in stadiums or on the telly. They are being taught that betting and football are one.
My podcast goes into detail about the financial side of the relationship. The initial question I was attempting to answer was whether lower league clubs, specifically those in the Championship – at the time 17 of the 24 clubs in the league had their shirts sponsored by and gambling firm, in a league sponsored by a gambling firm – would be able to survive without the money from advertising and sponsorship from the gambling industry. Here’s a spoiler – they would survive. Many people are addicted to cigarettes. Some are addicted to alcohol. There once was a time that these industries ruled the advertising space within sports. Where are they now? That’s right, they have been banned. And guess what? Football clubs in England are richer than ever, mostly.
I don’t want get into the complex world of football finance, however, because this is about people – and you get that by listening to the podcast. When Blair’s government came up with the legislation for the Gambling Act in 2005, they did so with the intention of making lots of money, pure and simple. However, that legislation was put in place with an eye on safety, and they had three aims – (1) to prevent gambling from becoming a source of crime and disorder, (2) to ensure gambling was being conducted fairly and openly, and (3) to protect children and vulnerable people from being harmed or exploited.
Although the government did not make the sums of money it may have liked seen as the majority of these gambling companies are based in tax havens like Malta and Gibraltar, those first two points can be considered a success. There is very little crime associate with gambling, and gambling is being conducted fairly and openly.
That final point though, the one about protecting children and vulnerable people from being harmed or exploited. Well, it’s been an unmitigated failure.
With the announcement of the Gambling Act due imminently, and with reports suggesting that the overhaul that so many are calling for will not cut the mustard, I hope the above has reached at least one person as in love with football as I am and has helped them to re-evaluate the relationship between gambling and football.