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.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: ALAMY

Has non-league sold its soul?

IN RECENT years, non-league football has promoted itself as “real” and the game for local communities. Some clubs have embraced causes, have lent their hand to political movements and have championed inclusiveness. In particular, the drive to build the next generation of fans – a vitally important element given the audience of this level of the game – has rightly placed emphasis on youth development, young fan groups and charitable causes linked to children. Many claim to be “community clubs”, which gives them access to certain financial benefits and enhances their social profile.

But will non-league truly benefit from the current wave of sponsorship by online gambling company BetVictor? The Gibraltar-based bookmaker has long been involved in sport sponsorship, taking in darts, snooker, poker, horseracing and, of all things, ping-pong. It’s a company with a turnover of £ 1 billion, so it is sizeable.

But gambling is a major social problem in the UK, an addiction that has got out of hand with even children dipping their toes into the betting industry. Obviously the demographic of football lends itself to gambling and would-be sponsors are attracted by its mass appeal and media presence. Yet it has a poor reputation as it can create financial problems for people who are lured in by the promise of instant gratification. Given society has demanded that other addictive elements and behaviours – smoking, for one – are now considered to be anti-social, how can non-league football happily align itself with an activity that creates so much pain?

BetVictor is sponsoring the Southern League, Northern Premier League and Isthmian League in 2019-20, the result of a collective approach from the three leagues. Some people will claim that in this age of football’s over-exposure to the sector – look at the number of Premier League clubs backed by betting firms – it is only natural that non-league would like a slice of the pie. It is not as simple as that – non-league is played in front of small crowds, every aspect of the matchday experience is that much easier to consume.

Hence, everyone will know who the sponsor is by the end of 2019-20, which is good news for that sponsor, but not so good if you are trying to sell your local club in the community. Companies like to be associated with causes and partners that are seen as “worthy” and genuine contributors to society. A football club’s reputation is not just created by its own standards, it is also built on what that club represents and who it associates with. In the big time, football is already so immersed in convenient partnerships that it is arguably too late to change it, but non-league football, with its focus on community and neighbourhood, may not find that taking money from bookmakers (in other words, money gained from the plight of others) is sending the right set of messages.

Not everyone accepts this is the only way, despite the amount of liquidity in the gambling industry and the temptation to go where the money is. Italy has banned gambling sponsors and a little known club in Yorkshire, Headingley AFC, became the first to be sponsored by an anti-gambling organisation, “Gambling with Lives”.

This is not about accepting that non-league clubs should take money from whoever they like in order to fill their coffers. Values should play a big part in their business model and given what clubs are trying to achieve in order to differentiate themselves from, for example, Premier League football, they need to stay true to their supposed “community” role. In this case, gambling is as socially toxic as some of the habits that are no longer allowed to advertise in markets directly exposed to children. Don’t be seduced by taking the quick buck, that has to be the message.

Photo: PA