Gambling and the game – are we missing the point?

THERE is a school of thought that suggests the less affluent the neighbourhood, the more bookmakers seem to reside there. The industry has, traditionally, relied on human nature’s habitual quest for something better – in other words, betting gives people the hope that their lives can be improved by winning. When times are hard, such activities seem to survive and often flourish. That’s not necessarily the case these days when there is so much competition and the online world of gambling seems a very crowded place. Like other remnants of the past, betting shops are rapidly losing their place in the beleaguered high street.

But the industry is clearly doing fine, hence wherever you go, there seems to be a gaming company either sponsoring, backing or promoting an event, an initiative or sticking its name on a football club’s shirt.

The gambling sector has a bad name, regardless of how much money it pumps into its Corporate Social Responsibility activities. Although companies try to present a humane, caring image to the public, it is hard to get away from the historic sleazy image of “turf accountants”. But it does seem there is plenty of cash.

There are 18 teams across the Premier and Championship who have a gambling company on their shirts. That’s more than 40%. Clubs look everywhere for cash, hence they allow themselves to be wooed by potential owners from countries with poor human rights records. Beyond shirts, only three clubs went into the 2020-21 season in the Premier without some form of association with a gambling firm – Sheffield United, Chelsea and Liverpool. Hypocrisy rules in football – clubs will run well-meaning community programmes to connect with the public and also with the aim of winning friends, but they will often take money from debatable sources.

Soccerex Connected hosted a session on football’s relationship with gambling and the point was raised that the current situation has gone too far. Naturally, representatives from the industry believe there is a way for football and gambling to co-exist for their mutual benefit, but somewhere, the real issue was avoided.

Football clubs will claim they need the money from gambling companies, but British football has so many different revenue streams that this argument holds little water. The broadcasting deal for the Premier League is astonishing but around 60% of all income goes towards players’ wages. 

If gambling sponsorship is so crucial, then football has a huge problem in terms of concentration risk. If there is an economic downturn, or the regulators decide to make things less liberal, then football will feel the pinch. The possibility of heavy regulation clearly concerns those who “fear” that clubs may go under if it. becomes too stringent. Rick Parry, the chairman of the English Football League, has warned that a ban on shirt sponsorship would be “cataclysmic” for clubs. Other major leagues have, at some point, banned or threatened to ban shirt sponsorship from the industry.

Interestingly, direct sponsorship from the sector does not trickle too far below the top two divisions in England, although there are a scattering of smaller clubs that have some sort of tie-up. Even non-league has grabbed cash from gambling, although it was reassuring that some clubs refused to take the money.

The narrative at the moment is that gambling can be bad for people’s health. Whether it is bankruptcy, financial hardship, mental health or loss of livelihood, home or personal relationships, gambling abuse can destroy lives. The reaction of some companies is to support, fund and promote programmes that combat gambling addiction. However, this is akin to saying, “We know what we do can be bad for folk, but we will help with the treatment.” To a certain degree, gambler rehabilitation has created its own industry.

Messages urging people to “gamble responsibly” are pointless, because entering into a contract between punter and bookmaker is, in many people’s eyes, already taking the irresponsible road. Football needs to avoid being quilty of feeding that beast and surely needs a more measured approach to aligning itself to activities that have social consequences.


Photo: ALAMY

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