The Football Gamble

This week the BBC current affairs programme Victoria Derbyshire reported that 95% of advert breaks during live football broadcasts featured at least one advert for bookmakers. The loophole in an agreement between the betting industry and the government, whereby gambling adverts can only be shown before the 9pm watershed during live sporting events is being fully exploited by betting companies, and the government are now considering cracking down amidst fears that children are being exposed to gambling, and indoctrinated by the positive message these adverts broadcast. The ubiquity of gambling in football has slowly crept to the forefront of the watching nation’s consciousness, but is it a monster now too great to contain?

“Oi, muggins! Once you’ve finished sifting through the dirt looking for some dinner, you should pop dahn to your local bookmakers and ‘ave a bang on this! We’re offerin’ special odds of 10/1 for the  human race to survive the forthcoming nuclear winter. You’d be mad not to have a pop at that price!” The year is 2055, the return to feudalism has left the underclass penniless, and a 50ft hologram of Ray Winstone is projected over the wasteland of Central London, repeatedly booming instructions to bet on the outcome of mankind. He is now their God, sprinkling promises of miracles along the dusty pathway to the grave. The streets are lined with corrugated iron shelters, burnt out hovercrafts, shopping trolleys full plastic bags – now the national currency – and row upon row of William Hill, Coral, Ladbrokes, Paddy Power, and BetFred franchises. A man, with putrid flesh hanging from his face and a tattoo of a petrified lion above the slogan ‘We Finally Took Control’ on his arm, turns to his young daughter and croaks ‘I blame Labour’.

Of course this is the stuff of science-fiction, given that the planet will be nothing but a smoldering fireball by 2055, but it was Tony Blair’s Labour government that first allowed betting companies to advertise on television back in 2007. Since then, bookmakers across the country have beamed the excruciating myth that gambling is a right good laugh into our living rooms, perpetuating the myth that you’re not a real bloody bloke if you’re not spunking your hard earned money on the outcome of an entirely random set of actions and consequences. Ray Winstone, best known for portraying Ray Winstone in every British production he’s been in, and Ray Winstone doing a dreadful American accent in every American production he’s been in, has become the Boss of the bookmakers advertisement, with Chris Kamara his unlikely Capo. In every gambling advert on television you’ll find lads gleefully winning their bets, much to the envy of their onlooking mates, and you’ll be convinced that you too can be as smug and self-satisfied as them, and it’ll only cost you the price of your mortgage, relationship and children’s future.

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It’s perhaps a significant mark of the shifting sensibilities of the Labour Party that it was they who first flagged the unhealthy relationship between football and betting firms. At the Labour Party Conference in Brighton in September, deputy leader Tom Watson pledged that, under a Labour government, British football teams would be banned from signing shirt sponsorship deals with bookmakers. This came a month into a new season where nine of the twenty teams in the Premier League had betting firms emblazoned across their shirts. Newly-promoted Newcastle United are one of the teams earning a share of the £47.3m laid out by bookmakers to secure shirt sponsorship, though their deal with Chinese firm Fun88 is at least a small step up the moral ladder from their four year association with loan sharks Wonga. When the Premier League kicked off in 1992, the two major industries involved in shirt sponsorship were consumer electronics – Arsenal’s association with JVC and Manchester United’s deal with Sharp remain iconic – and beer. Given the laws brought in to restrict the advertising of alcohol, and the downgrade of electronics from luxury to day-to-day items, its unsurprising that industries with more financial clout have moved in to take their places on the front of shirts. But should the need to generate more income take precedence over the moral obligations of our football clubs?

The situation at Stoke City is even more complex, given that their owner is the chairman of bet365. Peter Coates returned to the club in 2005, having been the majority shareholder between 1989 and 1997. Between these two spells, Coates’ daughter Denise set up a bookmakers, which soon became a family business. Stoke’s shirts are now adorned with bet365 sponsorship and their stadium, previously named The Britannia following the building society’s deal, shares its name with the owner’s company. Presumably stadium naming rights would be sold off with any shirt sponsorship deal should Labour’s initiative kick in, though how that would go down with Coates and his family remains to be seen.

The FA have already taken moves to rid English football of its gambling addiction by ending all affiliation with betting companies this summer. This followed quotes from Joey Barton, banned from football for 18 months after breaking betting rules, who suggested that it was hypocritical of the FA to mete out such severe punishment when they themselves had a “dependence on betting companies”. It’s understood that cancelling a long-term agreement with Ladbrokes has seen the FA lose out on £4m, but the governing body will still work closely with the firm in order to identify suspect gambling patterns in order to stamp out match-fixing. Readers who followed football in the ‘90s might remember the betting scandal from 1997 where in two separate games within a week the floodlights at Derby’s Pride Park and West Ham’s Upton Park failed. An investigation found that these were both instances of a Hong Kong betting ring influencing the match to win money.

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Barton isn’t the only footballer to have suffered at the hands of the bookmakers, though his betting habits do appear to be the most blatant case of rule-breaking in the modern game. The former Burnley midfielder revealed in a post on his own website the thirty bets that he placed which led to his lengthy ban. While he insists his betting never influenced his on-pitch performances, it will stick in the craw of supporters of his former clubs to see one of their players betting against his own team, as Barton did while at Newcastle. Footage taken from his spell at Manchester City, in a game where Barton backed himself to be first goalscorer, was also damning. It seems that even footballers on thousands of pounds a week aren’t immune from the allure of a little flutter.

As if the bookies weren’t omnipresent enough at football stadiums and during live coverage, they’ve also infiltrated social media, where more nefarious means of taking your money are at work. Not content with filling your timelines with special offers, meaningless polls, and jokes at Arsenal’s expense, they’ve also got affiliates trying to get into your wallet. These accounts dress themselves up as ‘tipsters’, and in between posting piss-weak adolescent banter, they offer their followers tips for forthcoming fixtures with links direct to bookmakers. What their followers don’t know is that the affiliates receive a small percentage of every bet placed on one of these tips, and so to earn more cash they post high-odds accumulators with a low chance of winning, and a screenshot of a high-stake to show that ‘we’re all in this together’. That was until the FootyAccums account was rumbled earlier this season. The account posted a 4-fold accumulator with odds of around 13/1. At the top of their bet365 screenshot the stake shown was £10, while at the bottom, it showed as £1.00. This was pointed out by Twitter user Alistair Wilson, and the tweet was quickly deleted. Some digging from Football 365’s Daniel Storey found that the contents of an online betslip can be easily manipulated using the Inspect Source function, and while the account in question weakly responded that ‘it was only one bet’, their scam had been exposed for all to see.

Betting firms also have a handle on the media. The rise of podcasting has seen a competitive market oversaturated, and sponsorship is the best way to raise funds in order to produce a high quality product. For that reason, when The Football Ramble began to produce two shows a week, they agreed a sponsorship deal with bet365, whereby odds for the weekend’s games would be included in the show. The Set Pieces, a fantastic football website founded by Iain Macintosh has its own gambling sister site, The Set Odds, where each week an ‘expert tipster’ offers betting guidance. For these two outlets to survive and thrive the financial support betting companies offer is entirely necessary, but it seems you can barely even look at a football without being told that Romelu Lukaku is the favourite to score first this weekend.

There’s no doubt that gambling is a serious societal problem in the UK, with a Gambling Commission report released in August revealing that over two million people in the country are at serious risk of addiction to betting. In order to safeguard future generations it’s vital that the stranglehold betting companies currently have on British football is vanquished, though what are the odds on the government clamping down on an industry worth £14bn? You can get an enhanced price of 5000/1 with BetTLF.

 

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