Gambling with lives

Betting firms have infiltrated football culture and destroyed lives. James Grimes argues its time to reclaim the sport

December 26, 2020 · 7 min read

Football fans, predominantly young men, offer a huge market for gambling companies. At the time of writing, 23 clubs out of 44 in the Premier League and Championship have a gambling brand visible on their first-team shirts. Thirty-six have at least one official betting partner. These relationships provide easy marketing opportunities for gambling companies – brand logos on shirts, promotions around the pitch, in the matchday programme, on the club’s media platforms and through direct email marketing to fans.

With these figures in mind, it comes as little surprise that research from Deakin University suggests children as young as eight think betting is a normal part of football. Similar studies have shown that a gambling brand is visible up to 89 per cent of the time on Match of the Day. This exposure to gambling advertising is proven to achieve brand recall, brand loyalty and, eventually, consumer intent. By portraying gambling as a legitimate leisure activity through association with football, the online gambling industry has been able to parasitically infiltrate sport while raking in £14 billion in gross profit in the last year alone.

The lure of sponsorship money is hard to resist – even more so given the ongoing fallout from Covid-19. With fans not allowed to attend games in person, revenues are down. Football clubs, especially in the lower leagues, who were already in a precarious financial situation are now desperate for cash and gambling companies are ready to pounce at the opportunity. It’s no surprise that we’ve seen many smaller clubs, such as Peterborough United, Crewe Alexandra and Morecambe FC, rush to announce betting partners to shore up their finances.

We need to look beyond the headlines and ask: where does this money come from? It’s reported that some gambling companies make 80 per cent of their profits from just 4 per cent of their customers. These customers are spending beyond their means, gambling to excess and, in many instances, are not in control of their actions. This is money that is ripped from communities and from people who can least afford it. I would know as I was one of them.

Normalising addiction

Like 55,000 other children in the UK, I was addicted to gambling by the age of 16. I would regularly gamble money that wasn’t mine, choose gambling over socialising and illegally place bets underage. The ensuing spiral of debt, deception and mental health problems became overwhelming before I was even of legal age to enter a bookies.

I started gambling after seeing betting advertisements and sponsorship in football. Gambling brands were everywhere during my teenage years. I don’t recall a time when they weren’t plastered on kits or littered throughout TV broadcasts of matches. My favourite club promoted a gambling brand on its shirt and, without a doubt, its presence led me to use its site over others in a competitive market. I had become a loyal customer.

This constant stream of advertising glamourised gambling to me. I believed the slogans that said ‘it matters more when there’s money on it’ but I had no understanding of the addictive nature and risk of the products. There was, and is, nothing glamorous about a child gambling. Becoming hooked at 16 paved the way for a 12-year destructive gambling addiction. The toxic ‘responsible gambling’ messaging led me to believe I could just ‘set limits’ and stop ‘when the fun stops’ – but any addict knows this is an almost impossible task. Soft messaging like this and the light-touch regulation from the 2005 Gambling Act have given free rein to gambling companies to infect football for profit, immiserating many fans’ lives in the process

Fighting back

Gambling took everything from me, but in April 2018 I placed my last ever bet. One year into my recovery I founded The Big Step along with Gambling with Lives, a charity formed by bereaved parents of gambling-related suicide victims. The Big Step aims to tackle football’s relationship with gambling through campaigning, events and partnerships with football clubs, where we deliver community education and awareness programmes. It’s been encouraging to see that we’re not a lone voice. Recently the Coalition Against Gambling Ads has been formed to call for an outright ban on gambling sponsorship, advertising and promotion. Together, we are building on the political work by ferocious parliamentary campaigners such as the MPs Carolyn Harris and Ronnie Cowan.

When questioned about their relationship with gambling, most football clubs say they are simply complying with regulations. While gambling companies are permitted to be the highest bidders for sponsorship rights, they will continue to do so.

This will not change without reform of our outdated gambling laws. The 2005 Gambling Act is analogue regulation for a digital age. It was written before the exponential rise of online gambling and is completely unfit for the technological developments we have seen over the past 15 years.The sponsorship of sporting events by tobacco companies has been banned since 2005 and we believe gambling should be treated the same. Some of the largest gambling companies have introduced a voluntary ‘whistle to whistle ban’ on gambling advertising five minutes either side of kick-off before the 9pm curfew. However, for this to be truly effective, shirt sponsorship, stadium promotions and other branding should not be constantly visible during the match.

We aren’t trying to stop people having a bet. However, gambling should not be aggressively promoted online and through the football world. That’s why, in February 2020, we concluded a 100-mile walk by delivering a letter to Downing Street, asking for the government to end gambling advertising in football. In September 2020 we walked 130 miles to gain public support for our petition, which calls for the same.

We believe the relationship between football and gambling has reached a critical juncture. Betting sponsorship is overwhelmingly unpopular: The Football Supporters Association reported that only 13 per cent of fans are happy to have a gambling-based shirt sponsor. It’s not just fans and campaigners who want to see change. Recent reports from the all-party parliamentary group APPG on gambling-related harm and the House of Lords called for advertising restrictions in football. With the review of the Gambling Act now underway, it’s encouraging to see cross-party support for our campaign but urgency is essential to save lives and to prevent further suffering at the hands of these corporate giants.

James Grimes is a campaigner for gambling reform and founder of The Big Step addiction charity. You can follow them @the_bigstep.

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