A lot has been written in the UK media in the days and weeks between the World Cup and the new football season, and since the balls started rolling regarding the amount of gambling advertising football fans and beyond are subjected to. Although the recent explosion of TV adverts and shirt sponsorship deals has taken the number of teams sponsored by gambling companies to unprecedented levels, this is not an entirely new phenomenon.
Gambling companies have been sponsoring top flight English football teams since 2002/03 when Fulham had Betfair emblazoned across their shirts. Although only lasting a single season, the Fulham / Betfair deal sowed the seeds, and from small acorns, oak trees grow. In the Premier league seasons that followed, Middlesbrough, Blackburn, Aston Villa, Sunderland and Tottenham were all sponsored by gambling companies. Last season (2017/18), nine clubs in the premier league were sponsored by betting companies (Bournemouth, Burnley, Crystal Palace, Everton, Huddersfield, Stoke, Swansea, Watford and West Ham).
For the 2018/19 season, nine premier clubs, and a whopping 17 (out of 24) championship clubs will be sponsored by a gambling company; that’s nearly 60% of teams in the top two divisions in England will wear shirts bearing the logo of a gambling company. 32Red alone sponsor five teams in the Championship (including my own team, Derby County). However, English football is not alone in large scale gambling sponsorship, or with one company sponsoring multiple teams in the same division. Ten clubs in La Liga have recently signed a deal with Bet365 that will see the bookmakers logo on websites, social media accounts, inside stadiums and team busses (although not on shirts). Aligned with the fact the championship is sponsored by the Skybet, exposure to gambling for sky viewers via the premier league, La Liga and the championship will be at an all-time high, making a mockery of the tiny sleeve patches EFL clubs will wear for the forthcoming season promoting the industry’s own responsible gambling campaign.
The relationship between the gambling industry and football raises many questions. For example, clubs with a gambling sponsor are not allowed to advertise on youth team shirts, however what happens when a player under the age of 18 breaks through to the first team? Commercial gambling in the UK is regulated by the Gambling Commission; one of the commission’s stated aims is to ‘protect children and other vulnerable persons from being harmed or exploited by gambling’, however the current situation requires a player under the age of 18 to advertise a gambling company, as was the case when Aston Villa’s Rushian Hepburn-Murphy made his debut aged just 16 years and 176 days with Dafabet across his chest.
Adults and children are exposed to gambling through sponsorship and other promotions in a variety of ways. Recent research from Goldsmiths University revealed that viewers of Match of the Day were exposed to gambling logos or branding for between 71 and 89 percent of the programme (Cassidy & Ovenden, 2017). Although usually shown first around 10:30pm, MoTD is repeated on Sunday morning, and is then available on BBC iplayer for 30 days, meaning many children will watch, and be exposed to gambling. Furthermore, some clubs have offered ‘Pokemon go’ style freebets via augmented reality that can be ‘hunted and captured’ around the stadiums of teams they sponsor, on matchday. These free bets are clearly based on a children’s game and appear to be designed with this market in mind.
The relationship between gambling and football also appears to be rife with hypocrisy, double standards and contradictions. The FA recently ended a commercial partnership with Ladbrokes, indicating that a gambling company was not considered an appropriate partner for the games governing body; however despite this, the FA still allows clubs to negotiate individuals deals, and accept money for entire competitions across the UK to be sponsored by gambling companies. Why is appropriate for clubs to be sponsored by gambling companies, but not the FA? Furthermore, individual players have been punished for gambling, perhaps the most high profile case being that of Joey Barton, who received a playing career ending ban for breaking rules which prohibit players from gambling on any football matches. Despite battling his own gambling addiction, and being governed by rules which prohibit an individual from promoting a gambling company, Barton was still required to carry the name of a gambling company on his chest at two clubs, Rangers and Burnley.
Although shirt sponsorship provides significant exposure for gambling companies, even greater exposure can be gained though direct advertising. Adverts from gambling companies are required to comply with the Industry Code for Socially Responsible Advertising. Originally published in 2007 to coincide with implementation of the 2005 Gambling Act, the code prohibited advertising of all gambling products, except crucially, bingo and sports betting around televised sports events. Live televised football is now saturated with gambling adverts, with approximately 95% of live football coverage featuring a gambling advert (Christie, 2017). We’ve all seen Ray Winstone’s floating head imploring us to ‘bet now’!
During the Russia 2018 World Cup, BBC Radio 4 analysed the content of advert breaks in 11 games shown on ITV; 62 of the 66 advert breaks contained at least one gambling advert. At its peak, 1 in 3 adverts shown were for gambling adverts. These are not games shown after a watershed, but at peak viewing times where many children will be watching, particularly the England games, thus exposing children to an onslaught of gambling adverts.
Exposure to gambling advertising is not just restricted to TV adverts; gambling companies maintain a strong online presence on social media, often tweeting about more than just odds, engaging in conversations, debates and running polls around upcoming matches and events. Interspersed with ‘banter’ about current football events are promotions for ‘bet specials’, competitions for ‘free bets’, and live in-play odds.
Gambling companies also retain a strong presence in the sports pages of print media. As a striking example on July 6th this year, in The Evening Standard, every page of world cup coverage was accompanied by gambling adverts. Individual articles are sponsored by Betfair, whilst Coral took a quarter page advert offering ‘enhanced odds of Kane to score anytime @40/1’, Ladbrokes a quarter page offering ‘money back on all losers’, Betfair a quarter page advert offering ‘best odds’, and ‘10/1 on Brazil to beat Belgium in extra time’, and Paddy Power a quarter page advert offering ‘money back as a free bet if Kane scores in 90 minutes’. Paddy Power also took a full-page advert that did not promote any betting offers, but outlined an excuse letter for an individual to be able to remove themselves from a prior social engagement to watch England v Sweden. All very amusing, until it is considered that of five pages of world cup coverage, two were taken up with gambling advertising.
But, what is the impact of all this exposure to gambling, through advertising and sponsorship?
Research on the impact of gambling advertising and sponsorship in the UK is lacking, so for guidance we can look at Australia. Previous research there has shown that the adverts have a significant impact on at risk and problem gamblers, particularly in-play sports betting adverts (Hing et al, 2017).
The effect gambling exposure through sponsorship and advertising can have on children is profound: Using an implicit recall task, previous research has found that 77% of children in the study were able to identify at least one NRL / AFL shirt sponsor, with better recall for more popular sports (Bestman et al, 2015). Using a similar task, a further study focussed more on gambling reports that over 75% of children in the study (aged 8-16) could correctly recall the name of at least one sports betting brand, and over 26% could identify 4 or more brands (Thomas et al, 2016). A further study reports that 75% of children, and 90% of adults perceive that sports betting was becoming a normal part of sport (Pitt et al, 2016), and that adverts show very clearly how to place a bet and communicate betting terminology, despite being shown at peak times when a significant proportion of the audience will be children (Pitt et al, 2017). Replication of these Australian studies is ongoing in the UK, in children and young football supporters.
Both the amount of gambling adverts, and the number of premier league and championship football teams sponsored by gambling companies are increasing. Repeated exposure to gambling through advertising and sponsorship serves to normalise gambling within football culture, to instil a sense that gambling and football go hand in hand. It is difficult to reconcile the Gambling Commission’s aim of protecting children from gambling related harm when the presence and influence of gambling in top level football continues to increase. With around 400,000 ‘problem’ gamblers and over two million adults experiencing some level of gambling related harm, combined with the growing body of evidence that advertising and sponsorship negatively impact children and a growing backlash against the proliferation of gambling adverts, it is difficult to see how the blossoming relationship between football and gambling is sustainable in the long-term.
The opinions expressed in this commentary reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the opinions or official positions of the Society for the Study of Addiction.