Pitch imperfect

Problem gambling on football and other sports has wrecked lives, but will a forthcoming review of legislation give a yellow card to the betting companies that make it so easy to win and lose money?

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This hazy, halcyon summer of football has left much of the country bewitched by the beautiful game. But bubbling below the surface of an entertaining European Championship, a battle is being waged between the gambling industry and those who feel betting companies’ tentacles have now reached too deep into football.

Gilham’s aim had been to win a large sum to leave to his young family before killing himself

There may soon be a knockout blow for one side when a long-awaited review into the UK’s 2005 Gambling Act reaches its conclusion later this year but for now the fight to control the narrative rages on.

In one corner are some familiar heavy hitters. The likes of Paddy Power, Sky Bet and Bet365 have become names as recognisable to football fans as Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar in recent years, so saturated has their presence become. From stadium and shirt sponsorship to half-time advertising, the gambling industry has become utterly intertwined with football.

Activists are united by a desire for gambling operators to remove their ever-tightening grip on the sport. Among them are recovering gambling addicts, MPs, professional footballers and even clubs.

For James Grimes, tackling the gambling industry has become his raison d’être. A recovering addict who, like so many, was snared by easy access to football betting, he created the Big Step campaign in 2018 to lobby for the eradication of gambling advertising from football.

His own 12-year gambling addiction came during what he calls “the Ray Winstone era”. The affable cockney actor has now become synonymous with encouraging punters to “bet now” before, during and after televised matches as part of an extremely effective Bet365 advertising campaign.

Grimes is not alone, having met hundreds of “everyday guys and girls, not flawed addicts” who simply had a random exposure to a product, became addicted and were then targeted by the industry.

“For a long time my life revolved around online gambling and the bookies,” Grimes tells Big Issue North. “It took away jobs, money, trust, motivation – everything. It left me empty and broken without hope or help.

“Then when I was trying to recover, I struggled because it was still there – just the sheer amount of gambling references and conversations in football.

“There are so many stories of relapses happening from seeing adverts and offers. It is a threat because it only takes one bad day and you are a click away from being sucked back in.”

It wasn’t until England’s run to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals that Grimes felt he could enjoy watching televised football again – but it continues to frustrate him. “It’s not that I get triggered seeing some random betting brand on the front of a shirt at Burnley but it’s a constant reminder of how involved gambling companies are in football.

“I know the truth behind those brands but there are millions of young kids who don’t. Companies like Betway, who are all over the stadium at West Ham, that allowed me to deposit most of my nan’s inheritance money without any checks and have allowed other gamblers to do similar – these companies should be nowhere near football.”

It is a sentiment shared by Chris Gilham, co-host of the All Bets Are Off podcast. He only started gambling aged 30 and it began with predicting the outcomes of matches involving his team, Liverpool. Quickly the incessant offers and staggering choice of matches and scenarios, particularly “in-play”, drew him in.

After trying to escape the industry’s clutches multiple times, including sending emails asking to be self-excluded that went ignored, Gilham reached his nadir in 2017. Having spent every penny he had, including money earmarked for home renovations that were underway, he took out a £25,000 loan and, over the course of two hours, deposited £22,000. His aim had been to win a large sum to leave to his young family before killing himself. Thankfully, it was instead the moment his recovery began.

Having also battled alcohol addiction, Gilham insists that gambling was significantly tougher to tackle because of the constant exposure, the 24-hour access and the forcefulness of messaging.

“The tone is just different for gambling adverts,” he says. “It feels like you are being told to do something and that it’s better when you do it. That means more when there is money on it.

“The messages are much more direct than with alcohol. I have never felt like anyone is saying to me: ‘Pull that bottle of gin out of your pocket and down it now.’ That’s what it is like with gambling.”

The recent Channel 4 documentary Football’s Gambling Addiction, presented by ex-Scottish Conservative Party leader Ruth Davidson, detailed just how difficult it can be for addicts to break free.

It highlighted the tragic suicide of Chris Bruney, who took his life after losing £120,000 of savings in five days. He continued to be bombarded with advertising even after his death. The organisation Gambling With Lives suggests there may be between 250 and 650 gambling-related suicides every year in the UK.

“A lot of gamblers say they get to a fork in the road when they have exhausted every opportunity and borrowing option,” Grimes says. “For most, it is either the moment they ask for help or try to take their own life. I have met around 100 recovering gambling addicts and every single one of us has had suicidal thoughts. It’s not a small-scale thing.

“Unfortunately, whatever happens the messages keep coming. It is such an insidious, dangerous form of marketing and I still get it now from so many companies. I have to put up with it and ignore it but I know that I’m a click away from ruining my life. They know that too but they don’t care.”

Above: Chris Gilham, who deposited £22,000 with a gambling firm in two hours. Main image: campaigning at Wembley (The Big Step)

The level of visibility gambling operators currently enjoy in football is mainly thanks to the 2005 Gambling Act, which liberalised the industry and opened the financial floodgates.

Betting companies embraced the changes and became embedded in sport, particularly football, leading to an industry boom that has continued apace for the past 16 years. According to the Gambling Commission’s 2020 report, the UK industry as a whole was worth £14.2 billion.

Now, however, the Gambling Act is under review and there is a suggestion tighter regulation could be on its way to restrict advertising.

Adam Brickell, director of public affairs at global sports betting company Flutter, admitted during a Soccerex conference panel in June that the industry could do more to stop gambling harm but also warned against excessive government intervention.

“This review should be about how we can reduce harm and protect vulnerable people but at the same time not deny millions of people the opportunity to enjoy what they do safely,” Brickell said.

“I’m not going to hide from the fact that some people get into problems and we have to be better at being able to spot them early. That’s where our focus is.”

The UK’s Betting and Gaming Council (BGC), which aims to create a “fair and safe betting and gaming experience” for customers, also warned against over-regulation – suggesting it would lead to more people going off grid for their gambling needs.

“The UK risks sleepwalking into changes where the main beneficiary is the unlicensed black market,” BGC chief executive Michael Dugher claimed earlier this year. “We all have an interest in getting future changes right.”

Those within the gambling industry point to positive steps such as the voluntary “whistle-to-whistle” in-game restrictions on broadcast advertising before the watershed, as well as programmes like Sky Bet’s gambling harm education delivered to Football League clubs, as evidence that they are compassionate and trying to improve. But Ronnie Cowan, the SNP MP who sits on the Gambling-Related Harm All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) and is pushing for drastic reform, believes that profits are still being placed above people.

“I’m not anti-gambling, I’m not a prohibitionist, but there have to be better safety checks in place to stop hurting people,” says Cowan. “I’ve sat in front of gambling chief executives and told them the stories of the people I’ve met who suffered from gambling-related harm. There wasn’t a flicker of emotion.

“They are being paid massive salaries and every penny comes out of the pockets of people who could suffer from addiction.”

Cowan has found support across party lines with Carolyn Harris (Labour) and Iain Duncan Smith (Conservative) two of the driving forces of the APPG.

“For me to sit down in a room with Iain Duncan Smith and hear him say ‘I agree with Ronnie’ is surprising but he has been an absolute powerhouse. He can literally pick up the phone and call the prime minister. That’s a big help to us because Boris Johnson is certainly not taking my calls.”

Cowan is hopeful that the Gambling Act review will at least lead to a ban on shirt sponsorship but those in the gambling industry have expressed concern about such a prospect.

The flow of money from gambling companies’ coffers into football via sponsorships and partnerships has swelled to such a level, they claim that to remove it would leave football’s finances dangerously parched.

Grimes and the Big Step believe such claims are overstated, pointing to the example of Formula One, which continues to thrive in a post-tobacco advertising market. Indeed, a recent report commissioned by Peers for Gambling Reform suggested replacing gambling companies with alternative sponsors would lead to lost revenue of just 2.5 percent for clubs.

“There isn’t actually this dependency that the industry makes there out to be,” Grimes says. “Clubs like Luton Town, Swansea City, Tranmere Rovers, Forest Green Rovers have already said no to gambling sponsorship and are not on the brink of collapse. They’ve put their communities first and are doing just fine. But this should not be an economic issue anyway. It should be treated as a public health matter.”

A parliamentary report on gambling harm, published a year ago, suggested that there are up to 460,000 problem gamblers in the UK with a further 1.8 million at low to moderate risk of harm. The report suggested that almost 25 per cent of the gambling industry’s profits come from problem gamblers.

Momentum has been building this summer and the strength of anti-gambling feeling among the public certainly appears to be growing. If Gambling Act reforms do not go far enough, Grimes and The Big Step will continue to fight.

“I’m not going to stop doing this until there aren’t any gambling adverts in football because there is just no justification,” says Grimes. “I know the harm it did me and the harm it causes others. I wouldn’t want any other person to go to that place and that is what gets me out of bed in the morning.”

What are the odds?

55,000 children are addicted to gambling in the UK (Gambling Commission).

A gambling brand is visible up to 89 per cent of the time on Match of the Day (Goldsmiths, University of London).

In one televised match between Newcastle United and Wolverhampton Wanderers, viewers were shown 716 gambling logos during the course of the 90 minutes (University of Glasgow).

One in four gamblers are suffering gambling harm (Oxford University).

24.9 per cent of the gambling industry’s profits come from problem gamblers (Gambling Harm – Time for Action parliamentary report).

The cost of problem gambling to the NHS is up to £760 million – including hospital inpatient services, mental health primary care and secondary mental health services.

For more information on The Big Step, visit www.the-bigstep.com and for Gambling With Lives visit gamblingwithlives.org.

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