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Stoke, Newcastle and Burnley shirts, with betting sponsors.Gettyimages

Does football have a gambling problem?

The names of bookmakers and online casinos are all over shirt sponsors, stadium names and TV ads. We've looked into football's relationship with gambling

An image of Ciaran Varley
Ciaran Varley

The football is back. Exciting hey? Who’s your money on this season? 

For many young fans, having a little flutter is as much a part of the match-day ritual as chomping on a pie at half-time or getting your fantasy team transfers done in time. And with the proliferation of smartphone apps enabling users to bet, you don’t even have to go to the bookies anymore. 

Gambling is very visible in English football. This season, almost 60% of clubs in England’s top two divisions have the names of gambling companies on their shirts – that’s nine of the 20 Premier League clubs, and 17 of the 24 in the Championship.

Watch live football on any platform this season and - aside from the number of betting companies you will see on club shirts, advertising hoardings, and even stadium names - you’ll see a wealth of gambling companies giving out the latest odds during the ad breaks.

There is concern from some that this is exposing young people to inappropriate messages.

There is also research to show professional footballers themselves are a particularly at-risk group, in terms of developing problematic gambling behaviour and this may represent a conflict of interest for football authorities. 

What's the story?

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Are young people being exposed to too many gambling adverts?

During the World Cup this summer, viewers were exposed to almost 90 minutes of betting adverts during the tournament. Bookmakers and online casino companies received one and a half times as much screen time as alcohol firms, and almost four times that of fast food outlets. 

Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson MP, has voiced concerns on exactly this point.

“One of the only downsides to this brilliant World Cup has been the bombardment of gambling advertising on TV and social media that thousands of children will have been exposed to,” he said.  

Since 2011, the Gambling Commission has been gathering information about gambling among children in school years 7 to 11 (broadly aged 11 to 16). According to research gathered in 2017, 12% of 11 to 15 year olds surveyed said they had gambled in the last week. 

Although this actually shows a decline since 2011 (down from 23%), Gambling Watch UK’s Professor Jim Orford has said the number of football clubs with betting sponsors remains “worrying”.

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“There is evidence gambling is becoming ever more normalised, particularly among young people, so, increasingly, betting is seen as part and parcel of following and supporting one’s favourite sport or team," said Professor Orford.

Marc Etches, chief executive of charity Gamble Aware, has raised the same concern. “We have a generation of fans who believe you have to bet on football to enjoy it and that is disturbing and concerning," he said. "The time is now for a much-needed debate about how we do this. Watching football and having a bet is becoming normalised, but we’re not talking about it."

NewcastleJonjo Shelvey

Watch football on TV in the UK and you'll see plenty of gambling ads.

The commercial broadcasters that show live Premier League, EFL, and European games rely largely on advertising (as well as subscriptions in most cases) for their income. As well as ad breaks that feature commercials promoting gambling around live football, some outlets also feature  segments of live programming bookended by sponsorship messages from gambling companies.

The Advertising Standards Authority explained to us that while they monitor the content of adverts, they don’t monitor the number of them. According to a spokesperson for the Authority: "This is not regulated by us or any other organisation – the Gambling Act 2005 provides for the promotion of gambling as a legitimate leisure activity.”

There are, however, restrictions advertisers must follow, as ads cannot be targeted at under-18s or include irresponsible content. The ASA also explained to us that the gambling industry has a voluntary code which restricts gambling ads to slots around live sporting events before the 9pm watershed.  

No one is breaking any rules here then. Gambling adverts are allowed to be shown, pre-watershed, around live sports, as long as those adverts are not designed to particularly appeal to under-18 audiences. An ASA ruling in 2015 established that whether an ad has "particular appeal" to children depends on the test of whether its content appeals more strongly to under-18s than to over-18s.

That's not to say people under 18 don't watch live sports.

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Are these ads influential enough to get people to put their hand in their pocket and take a punt?

In 2017, charity Gamble Aware conducted research on the relationship between young people (aged 15-24) and gambling in northern England and the Midlands. One key finding was that 35% of respondents who said they had gambled also said an advert had prompted them to do so when they were not otherwise planning to gamble.    

While the exact correlation between people watching gambling adverts and problem gambling is not entirely proven, Tom Watson believes more should be done to investigate the issue.

"With an estimated 25,000 children under 16 addicted to gambling, there is nowhere near enough work being done to study the effects of this advertising,” he has said. 

Do footballers themselves need protecting from gambling?

In a study of almost 350 footballers and cricketers conducted by the Professional Players’ Federation (PPF), results suggested sportspeople were three times more likely than the general public to be problem gamblers. 

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High profile cases of footballers who have struggled with gambling problems include Joey Barton, John Hartson, Keith Gillespie, and Dietmar Hamann. There may be many more who are suffering in silence, perhaps for fear of affecting their careers. And that perhaps hints at why just six per cent of the 170 footballers surveyed by the PPF responded.

One in 10 sportsmen interviewed by the PPF said they gambled to "fit in", one in four said they were encouraged by team-mates to do it, and nearly one in three thought their team's links with the gambling industry "encouraged" them to bet.

Despite the number of sponsorships for football clubs by gambling comapnies, players in England’s top eight tiers are banned from betting on football. Although that doesn't stop some of them.

Scott Davies, an ex-professional footballer who estimates he lost more than £200,000 to gambling over the course of his career, told us about how he used to bet against his own team at half time.

"I’d come into the changing room, take my phone out of my tracksuit bottoms, and, as soon as the the manager had finished his team talk, I’d put it down my shorts and go sit in a cubicle to put bets on the second half," he explained.

Scott now works with EPIC Risk Management, visiting professional clubs and delivering sessions to players on the perils of getting addicted to gambling. 

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In April 2017, Joey Barton, then playing for Burnley, was suspended from football for 18 months, for placing 1,260 bets on matches between 2006 and 2016.

Barton claimed he was addicted to gambling and appealed against the length of the ban. He has since had his suspension reduced, after the FA’s Appeal Board said the initial ban was “excessive in the circumstances”, as evidence from the player’s consultant psychiatrist about his addiction should not have been rejected. Barton is now manager of League One Fleetwood Town.

What’s being done by football authorities?

At the time of his suspension, Joey Barton called on footballing authorities to acknowledge a "conflict of interests". “There is a huge clash between their rules and the culture that surrounds the modern game,” he said at the time. 

The FA has since pulled out of a sponsorship deal with Ladbrokes Coral. Greg Clarke, FA Chairman, instigated a review into the sponsorship agreement. 

In response to questions about the relationship between football in England and the gambling industry, an FA spokesperson told us: "We made a clear decision on the FA's relationship with gambling companies in June 2017 when we ended our partnership with Ladbrokes. The leagues and clubs govern their own relationships with gambling companies." 

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This isn't just an issue affecting English football. In Italy, the country's deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio, has announced a ban on gambling adverts, which will mean clubs are barred from having gambling sponsors. This has attracted criticism from the European Gaming and Betting Association, who argue the move will lead to people turning to unregulated companies, and from Serie A, who are worried this may harm the league’s ability to compete financially. 

The Premier League does not have a central gambling-related partner. It is up to clubs themselves to decide who they enter into sponsorship agreements with. If they do have a gambling sponsor, they are not permitted to include their logo on youth shirts or shirts worn by their youth teams.

In 2017, the EFL announced a record five-year deal to see Sky Bet continue as headline sponsor until 2023-24.

An EFL press release announcing the deal said it was "underpinned by an enhanced Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), designed to help its customers stay in control and gamble safely". It also included a new campaign focussed on responsible gambling behaviour, with the slogan, “When the fun stops, stop".

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All EFL players now wear sleeve patches on their shirts, with that message.

Sky Bet and the EFL have also introduced a new responsible gambling campaign, designed to educate players and staff from every one of the 72 EFL clubs about gambling-related harm, over the next five years. The programme - delivered by EPIC Risk Management - began at the start of this season.

Sky Bet CEO Richard Flint said: "By funding such a vital service for every club we want to play our part in reducing gambling-related harm among their players and wider staff. I firmly believe that responsible operators can add value to sport through partnerships like this."

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Sponsorship is nothing new. Clubs, leagues, and broadcasters are businesses and need income and revenue streams in order to survive and thrive.

Gambling companies have perhaps filled the space in football left behind by breweries and cigarette manufacturers who used to adorn the shorts of players in the 1980s and 1990s.

Without the income, would clubs be able to attract the sort of players that make so many of us so enthralled by the beautiful game?

Plus, the moves by the FA to distance themselves from the gambling industry, as well as the campaigns around responsible gambling from the likes of the EFL and official betting partners, do suggest that football authorities are now recognising the need to show some action on tackling the problem. 

Will it be enough? We wouldn’t like to give you the odds on that.

If you have been affected by issues raised in this article, there's help and support available. There are also resources for emotional distress and debt.

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