Football’s addiction to betting sponsorship puts fans at risk

When Leicester City announced a new ‘official betting partner’ in August 2017, few would have begrudged the former Premier League Champions their deal.

This close and special relationship with Dafabet was, according to the club website, going to allow the club to “build its international profile” and “help engage Leicester’s huge worldwide fanbase.” Well, what was the purpose of Walkers Crisps, then?

Just a week later, the club took to the website once again: “Leicester City announces Ladbrokes as new official UK and Ireland betting partner for 2017/18.” Yes, that’s right. One club, one season, two separate gambling company sponsors.

Jason Puncheon advertises Crystal Palace’s betting partners

My discomfort at the close bond between football and betting, unfortunately, does not stop with Leicester City. It is the bombardment of ‘price boost’ adverts everywhere you look.

Gambling on the shirt

This season nine out of the 20 Premier League clubs have bookies’ names plastered across their famous jerseys in deals worth a combined £47.3 million. Gambling is also infiltrating the supposedly sanctimonious BBC.

Research conducted by University of London, Goldsmiths, showed that during one episode of Match Of The Day on April 15 2017, out of 85 minutes of total programme running time, gambling brands were visible to viewers (through shirt sponsors, pitch-side billboards or post-match interview backgrounds) for 33.5 minutes (39%).

The figures balloon when you look at broadcasts on commercial channels.

We assume that technology is making our lives better, but is it really? Many will argue that having the option to watch at least one elite level European match every day of the week is a good thing.

Whether all-consuming football makes you happy or not, the fact is it’s done so the clubs can generate as much exposure for their shirt sponsors who pay millions for the benefit.

How many of those in favour of midweek mediocre mid-table clashes such as Swansea versus Watford actually watch for the love of Troy Deeney’s insatiable goalscoring appetite? Maybe they’re just praying for a return on their hours spent researching Watford’s away record at the Liberty Stadium.

Getting hooked

FA rules ban replica shirts in child sizes that display products considered, “detrimental to the welfare, health or general well-being of young persons.” So what message are we sending out to our young people by making the beautiful game synonymous with gambling? If we, as adults, can’t enjoy football purely for what it is, how ever will we get our children to grow to love it?

Newcastle United players model their famous black and white jersey for the 2017-18 season

In the 2002-03 season, Fulham became the first English club to emblazon their shirts with a bookmaker’s name, the fairly innocuous Betfair. Since then it has snowballed and now logos include words like ‘fun’ and ‘man’, they’re target markets obvious.

It’s not to say there is anything wrong with an occasional flutter, but gone are those days when a well-gained insight gives way to a hunch. The constant reminders and promotions, on commercial TV and radio alike, encourage incessant wagering on an unnatural scale.

Martin Calladine, author and football blogger who also works in advertising, believes there are even darker motives at play: “I don’t think there is any doubt that the plan for bookmakers is to hook football fans in with betting on matches they attend or watch on TV and then move them onto more profitable forms of gambling, like FOBTs (Fixed Odds Betting Terminals).”

These FOBT machines in bookmakers allow punters to stake large amounts on casino games like roulette.

“It’s a classic marketing strategy,” Calladine explains, “for industries concerned that the truth about where their profits come from would be publicly unpalatable — you promote a product that feels homely and unobjectionable to protect your image.”

Barton ban

One man who knows all too well about football and gambling is Joey Barton. The much-travelled midfielder fell foul of FA rules banning players from betting on the sport and was banned for 18 months, effectively ending his career.

Joey Barton playing for Burnley and advertising another bookmakers

Barton, along with many others, was angered at the severity of the ban.

“I think if they found out everyone who had been betting and cracked down on it, you’d have half the league out,” declared Barton. “I think 50 per cent of the playing staff would be taken out because it’s culturally engrained.”

How hypocritical of the FA to, on one hand take sponsorship money from bookies like Ladbrokes, and then act surprised when it realises there is a negative culture existing.

A public backlash in 2017 led to the FA abandoning its partnership with Ladbrokes after just one year. It also reduced Barton’s ban by five months.

Clearly the FA was accepting some responsibility for the mess, but for the Premier League and Football League to follow suit would be unlikely considering the appetite for increasing annual revenues.

These days, it might seem a bizarre suggestion to look across the pond for wisdom. However, attitudes in the United States against gambling are so strong that, in 2015, the NFL banned players from attending a fantasy football event in Las Vegas merely because it was being held in an exhibition centre adjoining a casino.

Of course the US is a different beast because of different gambling laws throughout the states and nobody is calling for measures that draconian.

It may be wise however, for the football authorities to consider how the entanglement of football and betting will impact on the sport and its fans down the line.

Betting shop image by Kake via Flickr Creative Commons under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)