Time to worry as football becomes the gambling industry’s most lucrative sport

When I went to my first football match as a six-year-old, the dominant sensory experiences were the vivid but sponsor-free blue and red strips of the players, the intoxicating aroma of tobacco and the animated noise of an adult crowd, chorusing the “na-na-na, na” refrain of Hey Jude.

Aside from the fading paint of a few hoardings, commercial messaging was absent. Looking at that game’s programme, which along with the crackling tannoy provided the media dimension to the ‘match-day experience’, there were ads for a dry cleaner’s, a paint shop and the local funfair.

Gambling was limited to a Willy Wonka-like Golden Goal contest, which shared £130 prize money among tickets that showed times coinciding with the ball going in the net. Then there was the vague hope of riches from a pools coupon ritually filled out earlier that week with a series of Xs.

The modern young fan experiences the sport differently. Watching games on Sky, he/she sees Jeff Stelling endorsing Sky Bet, or is urged “Bet in play now!” On the BBC there’s no escape from shirts embossed with logos for Betway, BetVictor, LoveBet or ManBetX – a study by Goldsmith’s University last season found that betting logos, either on shirts or billboard ads, were on screen for between 71-89 per cent of the time on Match of the Day.

Lucrative market

When I was a kid, betting was associated with horses. Today, football is easily the gambling industry’s most lucrative sport. Football gambling has grown with the global popularity of the English game, and the evolution of the sports media serving it.

Younger fans are brimming with tactical insight gleaned from data-rich modern sports coverage. They’ve built encyclopaedic knowledge of players from video games such as FIFA and Football Manager. Betting companies know this and feed them increasingly complex products.

Gambling ads are omnipresent in football. (Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty)

We are at a point where many younger fans see a punt as essential to enjoyment of a game. Take James Grimes, who was 16 when he raked in £90 from a £5 stake for an accumulator. “I remember going to collect the cash and having the feeling ‘I’m good at this!’” Grimes did have an exceptional ability to read the game – by 17 he was a coach at Sheffield United’s academy. But by then he was gambling online and on his way to debts of £100,000, which wrecked his career.

He blames the ads: “When someone is telling you the game ‘matters more if there’s money on it’, that sticks in your head.”

Grimes, 30, runs the Big Step campaign for Gambling With Lives, a charity created by bereaved families of gambling addicts. Had he been born earlier things might have been different. “Traditional forms of gambling like the pools didn’t have the same addiction. I wasn’t born an addict but there was 24-7 betting sold to me through my favourite sport. There are hundreds of thousands with a similar story.”

A Government review of betting in sport will finish in March. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden says the gambling sector has “evolved at breakneck speed” and sports minister Nigel Huddleston says we need to “pull our legal framework into the digital age”. A House of Lords committee recommended in July that betting ads be banned “in or near” sports venues, “including sports programmes”.

A study of football shirt sponsorships last week found that the Premier League has a stronger relationship with gambling than any of the world’s top leagues; betting brand shirt sponsorship went from zero to 50 per cent of teams between 2000 and 2020. In Germany’s Bundesliga, it’s almost non-existent. Simon Chadwick, professor at Emlyon business school in France, anticipates a ban in the European Union but not in Britain. “Some fans see it as integral to the match day experience and gambling is a significant source of revenue for the exchequer. You might see some public health messaging around it but I don’t envisage a ban.”

Pressure to cut ties

Clubs will claim that they can’t withstand the financial losses. But the same was said of tobacco sponsorship, a sinister presence in my youth when it was omnipresent in Formula 1, snooker and cricket. Plenty of global brands want their names on Premier League shirts.

Gambling ads are as present in stadiums as tobacco ads once were (Photo: Peter Cziborra/PA)

For a game that markets itself as a societal force for good, endorsing causes such as the anti-racist Kick It Out campaign and the Heads Together mental health charity, it’s extraordinary that football should be in hoc to betting companies.

“Sports teams, star players and even broadcasters have been following brand purpose strategies which signal their commitment to important social causes,” says Richard Gillis, founder of the sports business podcast Unofficial Partner. “But does it undermine their credibility if they do this while simultaneously promoting gambling and taking money from betting companies?”

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