No fewer than 19 betting companies have commercial partnerships with English football clubs. William Hill ranks as the FA’s "official supporter," while Sky Bet sponsors the Football League to the tune of £15 million. And just for good measure, Bet 365’s gruff geezer, Ray Winstone, tugs on macho heartstrings, demanding fans bet in-play. Now.
Gambling is pervasive throughout the beautiful game. But does football, both in professional and fan culture, have a problem?
Should it look to mitigate gambling’s influence on ethical grounds or leave moral judgement to the media and continue to reap the fiscal rewards in a year when Financial Fair Play constraints come into full force?
The commercial benefits are hard to dispute given the current sponsorship market. A sporting intelligence report on 2013/14 Premiership sponsorship deals reveals a massive gulf between the country’s six most marketable clubs and the remaining 14. Coming off the back of disappointing seasons, Aston Villa, Fulham and Stoke City have found financial solace in multi-million pound deals with Dafabet, Marathonbet and Bet365 respectively.
Speaking to the Guardian, chief executive of M&C Saatchi Sport Steve Martin explains:
“The big brands that were well known household names, a lot of them have grown and don't need the awareness—Orange, O2, airlines, banks.”
This leaves betting companies—boasting sizeable marketing budgets from the growth of tablet and mobile—to fill the void.
In theory, at least, betting sponsorship pumps more money into the game, which can be used to subsidise youth development and charitable initiatives. Fans might also see a reduction in exorbitant ticket prices.
Yet amid the concerted efforts to clean up the game with financial fair play, anti-racism and official respect campaigns, the proliferation of gambling is an uncomfortable paradox.
Gambling is a prominent and in several cases regrettable part of player culture. High-profile victims of addiction include Matthew Etherington, who lost £1.5 million whilst at West Ham; Blackpool’s Michael Chopra, who admits playing through injury to cover gambling debt; and former Blackburn Rovers winger Keith Gillespie, who declared himself bankrupt in 2010.
Former Arsenal and England defender Kenny Samson has been rendered homeless as a result of gambling and alcohol-related woes.
Even the cream of English talent has been tainted by gambling: Back in 2006, Michael Owen allegedly headed a betting ring that included Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Wayne Rooney—the latter of whom got into difficulty over a £700,000 debt. Rooney’s youthful indiscretions may be behind him, but some fans attribute his torpid display at Euro 2012 to a pre-tournament trip to gambling hub Las Vegas—a popular haunt for footballers.
Recent controversy saw Tottenham Hotspur’s Andros Townsend—on loan at Queens Park Rangers at the time—handed a four-month ban and Stoke City’s Cameron Jerome slapped with a £50,000 fine for breaking the FA’s betting rules.
To guard against inside betting, the FA prohibits a player betting on any competition his club has been involved in that season. But given the William Hill deal, the clamp-downs do more to highlight the FA’s brazen hypocrisy than they do a problem Peter Kay from the Sporting Chance Clinic calls "epidemic" within football.
On a lighter note, mischievous Irish bookmaker Paddy Power had its brand emblazoned on Nicklas Bendtner’s pants during Denmark’s European Championship match with Portugal last year. It also counts Joey Barton and pundit Andy Gray among its patrons.
A happy medium calls for moderating the influence of gambling.
The FA and Football League, heavily involved in youth, community and grassroots development, are family brands. The exposure of betting to youngsters is lamentable—a view affirmed by former Sunderland striker Kevin Kyle to the BBC in reference to his native Scotland:
“You've got 42 senior teams in Scotland and you are looking at on average six or seven players per team (gambling on football). That's nearly 300 odd players before you get to the junior level.”
Yet banning betting sponsorship from football in a similar vein to tobacco advertising from Formula One would be a draconian and disproportionate response. Contrary to media hysteria surrounding its adverse effects, "problem gambling" affects only 1 percent of the adult gambling population, according to the Gambling Commission’s 2010 survey.
Football betting is more strategic and far less destructive than other forms of gambling, and it boasts a rich heritage—the pools date back to 1923.
Moreover, efforts to limit the influence of betting firms would have to start as a top-down, government initiative, since Britain boasts some of the world’s most liberal gambling laws. Steve Martin reasons:
“If a payday loan company or a bookmaker is allowed to advertise on billboards or in newspapers, then clubs are entitled to go after it. They need the revenue.” However much culpability you attribute to football's opportunism depends on your moral compass.