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Fair game? The secrets of football betting

Last year, punters across Britain gambled and lost more than 14 billion pounds. The betting industry is now more visible than ever before, with blanket advertising campaigns on television, radio, online, and outdoors. And through sponsorship of teams, and even entire leagues, gambling companies have embedded themselves in professional football in the UK.

Some see the relationship as harmless, but a groundswell of public opinion labels it as immoral and downright dangerous.

Radio 4's File on 4 asks, has the beautiful game forged a questionable alliance with a risky business?

In the top two divisions of English football, nearly 60% of clubs are signed up to lucrative sponsorship deals with gambling companies.

Football and gambling now seem inextricably linked

In the top two divisions of English football, nearly 60% of clubs are signed up to lucrative sponsorship deals with gambling companies. Stoke City, to name one, is owned and sponsored by gambling giant Bet365, a company which made a profit of 767 million pounds last year alone. Their stadium has been renamed the Bet365 stadium. Derby County is sponsored by betting operator 32Red and their big summer signing, Wayne Rooney, now wears the number 32 on his back. Campaigners have raised the alarm, echoing concerns that the so-called “gamblification” of football may serve to normalise sports betting to such an extent that unsuspecting football fans, including children, may be lured towards addiction.

James Grimes, a recovering gambling addict, founded Gambling with Lives, which probes ties between gambling and football. He likens the spread of betting sponsorship in football to a virus. “Having that relationship normalises it and glamorises it,” says James. He believes children could end up using 32Red, because it’s been desensitised through their football club.

The EFL say football has had a long relationship with the gambling industry, and they work together in a responsible manner. But chairman of Tranmere Rovers, Mark Palios, who has turned down gambling company sponsorship for his club, isn’t convinced: “I think the industry has to wean itself off the position that it’s in at the moment… I certainly think it’s gone too far.”

More than 400,000 of us are problem gamblers

For some, betting is just a bit of fun, and they’re able to “stop when the fun stops” – as the well-known betting industry slogan goes. But all across the UK there are others who can’t, with sometimes catastrophic results. Just over half of men aged 16 to 24 gambled in the past year, according to statistics revealed by the Gambling Commission, the industry’s licensing and regulatory body. And most worryingly, more than 400,000 of us are problem gamblers – a figure that many believe could be much higher.

Becky and Ben's story

Becky and Ben's story: "I was completely heartbroken."

Ben was a problem gambler who stole hundreds of thousands of pounds to fuel his addiction

“I remember ringing my mum in absolute hysterics. I couldn’t believe what had happened”

Becky Jones, 29, is a midwife and the mother of two little girls. She’s been with their dad, Ben, for 15 years. Before their lives unravelled, they lived a quiet, comfortable life in a leafy suburb of Nottingham. But Ben developed a gambling problem that escalated to the point where he was unable to control it.

Ben was suspended from his job as a wholesales manager at a cake decorating supplies company. He revealed to Becky that over a three-year period he had stolen £374,000 to fund his secret addiction. “I remember ringing my mum in absolute hysterics. I couldn’t believe what had happened. I couldn’t breathe on the phone,” says Becky. “I was just absolutely distraught.”

Three months ago, Ben was jailed for three years. Becky has lost everything. After Ben confessed, she learned more and more about her husband’s all-consuming addiction to sports betting, and to the endless temptations to gamble on matches in all four corners of the world, day and night.

Becky and Ben. Ben was jailed for three years for stealing £374,000 to fund his secret addiction.

The perils of in-play betting

The fastest growing form of online gambling is called in-play or in-running betting. It allows punters to place bets after an event has started. Over the course of a 90-minute football match, it opens the door to placing dozens of bets at a time – like who will score the next goal, or which team will have a player sent off. This is betting without limits.

The fastest growing form of online gambling is called in-play or in-running betting. It allows punters to place bets after an event has started.

Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones is a gambling addiction specialist and Director of the NHS’s National Problem Gambling Clinic. She believes in-play betting poses a significant risk to those vulnerable to addiction: “If you can have constant bets throughout a match… it becomes a never-ending potential for somebody to destroy themselves through their addiction.”

“It got to a point where I planned to kill myself”

For another problem gambler, Craig, in-play betting proved irresistible and utterly devastating – and almost cost him his life. “I think in-play betting is built for addicts,” says Craig. Often, you will lose a bet – on who will score first, for example – in the first few minutes of a game. “Your bet’s over, you panic,” says Craig. “You’re wanting to get the next bet on straight away and there’s no restriction of how many bets you can put on.”

Craig placed 2.7 million pounds worth of bets over a four-year period. He started on credit cards, but then he managed to take out four £20,000 to £25,000 loans. “There was no way of me getting out of it as far as I was concerned,” says Craig. “I’d ruined everything. I was having suicidal thoughts. It got to a point where I planned to kill myself.”

Addicts are being targeted with “VIP status”

Craig was given “VIP” status by the betting company. A step he now believes was pivotal in his ordeal. He was told he would receive hospitality days out; he was made to feel part of a family. He was losing huge amounts of money at this point, and has no doubt in his mind that the company knew he was a problem gambler.

Craig’s VIP experience is remarkably similar to that of Ben Jones. Ben was bombarded with messages and emails from his VIP manager at Betway. Over a two-year period, contact was relentless – even when Ben told them he wanted to stop. In total, he was given over £39,000 in bonuses and on a daily basis there would be two, three messages offering him free bets – always in the same matey tone. In total, more than a million pounds was gambled through Ben’s one account with Betway, and at times he was losing at a rate of more than £30,000 a month.

If you can have constant bets throughout a match, it becomes a never-ending potential for somebody to destroy themselves through their addiction.

“They’re expected to lose, and expected to lose more heavily and more quickly”

File on 4 spoke to one of the senior managers who worked for one of the biggest betting companies in Britain. Kevin (not his real name) walked away from the sector over personal concerns.

At one betting company, whilst only 2% were VIP customers, they accounted for 83% of all the deposits made.

“What bookmakers do is they look at your future expected profit and loss… and that is what everything is judged on,” says Kevin. He claims that if a player is expected to lose, and lose big, they will be moved over to VIP status. The people who are expected to win, are not. The VIP manager’s role is to facilitate turnover: “If we get turnover from a customer, we’ll make money off them.” If a customer goes quiet, the managers are expected to get on WhatsApp or email, any time of the day or night and, like a “fake friend”, encourage them to start betting again, says Kevin. If it doesn’t work, the VIP manager will find themselves out of a job.

A survey conducted by the Gambling Commission revealed the extent to which some betting companies rely on VIPs for their income. At one company, whilst only 2% were VIP customers, they accounted for 83% of all the deposits made.

Rules and regulations are often being ignored

Kevin claims that rules and regulations were often ignored, including checks on whether a person could afford to gamble and lose. He claims the welfare of problem gamblers was not a priority.

Betway did ask Ben for proof of income on two separate occasions, and he was deemed ok to continue to gamble. But Becky says the number of payday loans, the number of credit card payments, and the amount of the overdraft on Ben’s account should have made it clear that something wasn’t right: “I don’t feel that they had Ben’s welfare at the heart of everything.”

Are things changing for the better?

Betway told File on 4 that they recognise that they didn’t perform to their own high standards in the Ben Jones case. They say the results of this case led them to review and make substantial changes to their responsible gambling policies and procedures, including bringing in much stricter anti-laundering controls and the disbanding of the VIP program. Brigid Simmonds, Chairman of The Betting and Gaming Council, says although betting companies haven’t been “best in class” in the past, they are now very active on checking affordability: “From board level downwards, the issue of safer gambling is the highest possible priority.”

For Becky, any changes have come too late. She says Ben has never blamed anyone for his addiction or his actions but, in her mind, he is not the only one who needs to take responsibility for what happened. “I definitely think there is an element of accountability with regards to safeguarding him,” she says. “People need to admit these practices are immoral and unethical.”

For now, all she can do is look forward to him getting back home – and a happier, gambling-free future.

To learn more, listen to File on 4: Fair game? The secrets of football betting

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