The English football season kicked off at the weekend. But with the majority of the teams in England’s top two divisions sponsored by betting companies, anti-gambling campaigners are voicing their concern. Are football and gambling now inextricably linked? Or should we stop worrying and just enjoy the ‘beautiful game?’

By Mark Richards.

…And on Friday night, at Reading’s Madejski Stadium, it all began again. Less than a month after the World Cup final the English football season began again, as Reading kicked off against Derby County.

That was Reading – sponsored by energy drinks company, Carabao – against Derby County, sponsored by online sports betting company 32 Red. And that made the game quite unusual in the Sky Bet Championship in that one of the teams was not sponsored by a sports betting company.

In total there will be 552 teams in this year’s Championship: only 42 of those games will not feature a betting company on one of the teams’ shirts, with all the teams except Reading, Rotherham, the two Sheffield clubs, West Brom, Wigan and Millwall not having shirt sponsorship from an online betting company or casino. As I am writing this article, 32Red Leeds United are leading Bet365 Stoke City 2-0.

The situation is marginally better in the Premier League (still sponsored by Barclays for the 2018/19 season) with 9 of the 20 clubs sponsored by online gambling firms, although that does not include any of the teams expected to fill the top six places.

Welcome to no. 88

One number you will be hard-pressed to avoid this football season is 88. No, it is not the number your team’s star signing will be wearing – number 8 has long been perceived as the luckiest number in Chinese culture. Its pronunciation – ‘ba’ – supposedly sounds like ‘fa,’ which (according to my research) means to make a fortune. The number eight contains meanings of prosperity, success and high social status and so – understandably – it is much favoured by online betting firms.

In this season’s Premier League Bournemouth (Mansion 88), Newcastle (Fun88) and new boys Wolves (W88) are all sponsored by betting firms apparently guaranteeing prosperity and success. In the Championship Birmingham look to go one better being sponsored by 888sport, although the Blues rather threw away their ‘high social status’ at the weekend, conceding an injury time equaliser to Norwich City (sponsored by LeoVegas).

This is worrying…”

The examples I have quoted above are just normal games from an average weekend, and with plenty of Championship games on TV in the coming season – and the Premier league receiving wall-to-wall coverage as always – it is therefore understandable that anti-gambling campaigners in the UK have been quick to voice concerns.

“This is worrying,” said Gambling Watch UK’s Professor Jim Orford. “There is ever more evidence that gambling is becoming normalised, particularly among young people, so that betting is increasingly seen as a normal part of supporting your team or following a sport.”

No-one who watched the World Cup – and its almost blanket betting ads – could have any difficult seeing the point Professor Orford is making, and it is very clear that the gambling ads do target the younger generation. I have yet to see a gambling ad featuring any potential customer over the age of 30.

Are football and gambling now inextricably linked?

Number of problem gamblers

According to the Gambling Commission’s most recent stats there are 430,000 problem gamblers in the UK, including 25,000 children in the 11 to 16 age group. Overall, it is thought that around 370,000 children in that age bracket gamble every week.

“Many people now think that gambling is out of control in Britain,” said Orford. “We have the most liberal online gambling regulations of any country in Europe.”

Whilst plenty of other sports are popular with online gamblers – horse racing is an obvious example – the campaigners see football as the main driver of the nation’s ‘addiction’ to gambling. Mark Etches, chief executive of GambleAware, says,

“I think we are at a tipping point in the relationship between professional sports and gambling. We have a generation of fans who believe you [must] have a bet on football to enjoy it and that is disturbing and concerning. Watching football and having a bet is becoming normalised, and we need to have a debate about it.”

How has football reacted?

Naturally the football clubs – and the leagues – have been quick to express their sympathy for the GambleAware position, with Crystal Palace working with the charity on a ‘safer gambling’ campaign over three games at the end of last season. The problem is that football, like other sports, has become dependent on the cash injection from the online sports betting companies, both through direct sponsorship  and revenue share with the “official betting partner” that virtually all clubs now have.

It also seems inevitable that the next World Cup will have an ‘official betting partner’ – after all, Budweiser was the ‘official beer’ of Russia2018, so why not an official betting partner for Qatar2022?

As the season kicks off players in all three divisions of the English Football League will now wear ‘responsible gambling’ badges on their sleeves – but that won’t stop the finance directors picking up the phone when a betting company rings with a potential sponsorship deal. Neither will it stop fans wanting to back their opinion with some cash as, in fairness, they have always done. Sport and gambling have always gone hand-in-hand, right back to the chariot races in the Coliseum. Sleeve badges are not going to change that.

When the fun stops…

As many people will know, nearly all gambling ads end with a simple statement – ‘When the fun stops, stop’ (or cum autem amet mensus prohibere as they would presumably have said in the Coliseum…)

The problem is that for an increasing number of people, it is not fun and they cannot stop. Whether these people would have found another outlet for their gambling – such as the much-criticised fixed odds betting terminals – other than football is a matter of debate. But with the season a weekend old, and the Premier League due to kick off on Friday night, the only certainties are another nine months of gambling ads, and that come the end of the season the anti-gambling campaigners will be voicing the same concerns.

Let us just hope that no-one suffers such an embarrassing personal loss as Amani Stanley famously did last season…