UK Gambling Campaigners Worry about Link between Football and Gambling

Hands holding phone with laptop in background

…And so tonight, at Reading’s Madejski Stadium, it all begins again. Less than a month after the World Cup final, the English football season starts again, as Reading kicks off against Derby County.

So it is Reading, sponsored by energy drinks company, Carabao, against Derby County, sponsored by online sports betting company 32 Red. And that makes the game quite unusual in the Sky Bet Championship in that one of the teams will not be sponsored by a sports betting company.

There will be 552 teams in this year’s championship and only 42 of those games will not feature a betting company on one of the teams’ shirts. All the teams except Reading, Rotherham, the two Sheffield clubs, West Brom, Wigan, and Millwall have shirt sponsorship from an online betting company or casino.

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

“This is worrying…”

With plenty of championship games on TV in the coming season, and the Premier league receiving wall-to-wall coverage as always, it’s 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 normalized, 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 difficulty 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.

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.”

While 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. Watching football and having a bet is becoming normalized, and we need to have a debate about it.”

How football has reacted

Naturally, the football clubs and 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.

As the season kicks off, players in all three division 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.