Football is back; after 100 days since the last Premier League match tonight sees the welcome return of live action with Aston Villa taking on Sheffield United and then, a little later this evening, Manchester City will host Arsenal. However, there will be a totally different look and feel as the matches will be played without fans in the stadium, leaving the ‘atmosphere’ to be created by broadcasters using recorded crowd noise – viewers will be able to choose whether they want to utilise this feature or not. Other differences will see five substitutions being allowed, one minute drinks breaks – one in each half – and pitchside social distancing with substitutes sitting apart in the stands.
Football’s restart – The EFL Championship resumes on Saturday – also sees the return of the debate on the harmful effects of online-gambling as, after so long without football and with all games being shown on live TV, campaigners fear there’s a very real prospect of a ‘betting frenzy’.
With impeccable timing, yesterday saw the publication of the final Report of The Gaming Related Harm, All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on i-gaming harms, which concludes that new controls should be introduced, including a total prohibition on advertising and in-play betting.
The report is the culmination of a year-long investigation into the UK’s online gaming market, which has seen evidence gathered from operators, lawmakers, the Gambling Commission, as well as those who have sadly suffered from gambling related harms.
The Report sets out more than 30 recommendations for regulatory change, with the headline being a call for a blanket ban on gambling advertising. The APPG Report claims that ‘as gambling can cause harm to individuals, and as advertising is designed to encourage people to gamble, total prohibition is justified’. Indeed, the APPG’s chair, the MP for Swansea East Carolyn Harris described the gambling sector as a “multi-million pound industry that has destroyed people’s lives”.
My own antipathy towards the rise of betting brands sponsorship in football is well known and I expressed my feelings strongly in my article earlier this year when The FA were heavily criticised over the sale of FA Cup rights to BET365, via its deal with sports rights agency IMG.
In my article I reiterated my pride that all of the major sponsorships I was personally involved in negotiating during my 23 years in professional football – whether that was for Charlton Athletic in my two spells at the Club or for The Football League (I can’t get used to calling it The EFL!) or for Swindon Town – were with companies whose products, services and brand values were ones that I was personally happy to promote to supporters of my Club, or in the case of The EFL, to supporters of all 72 Clubs.
However, the world-wide popularity of professional football has steadily seen the rise in national and international gambling companies and online casinos pumping millions of pounds into the game. In fact, half of the clubs in the Premier League and 17 out of 24 clubs in the EFL Championship feature a betting brand as a shirt sponsor in this current season. It’s hard then to argue with the APPG vice chair and MP for Inverclyde Ronnie Cowan when he said, “we are bombarded by gambling across all mediums and our sports are in hoc to an industry which seeks to profit from them. Young men, women and families are being destroyed by online gambling.”
I can well understand how this almost blanket coverage of football by betting brands has happened though, as the gambling industry clearly adopted a proactive strategy of securing shirt sponsorships; something which has almost made redundant the ‘old fashioned’ way of attracting a compatible shirt sponsor that I referred to earlier.
It is no wonder then that this sponsorship saturation has coincided with a rise in the numbers of people affected by gambling addiction and this ultimately is what has led to the conclusions in the APPG Report that much tighter restrictions should be placed on the advertising and promotion of online betting companies.
Another significant consequence of aligning themselves with betting brands has been that Clubs have effectively driven a wedge between themselves and their own Community Trusts.
Sadly, and as I alluded to earlier and in my previous article; football’s dependence on sponsorship from the on-line gambling industry flies in the face of the fantastic work undertaken by Clubs’ Community Trusts throughout The Premier League and The EFL in addressing mental health issues, such as the award-winning Early Help and Prevention programme operated by the Charlton Athletic Community Trust (CACT), an organisation that I am proud to be an ambassador of.
However, my fear is that, at a time when the perilous finances of football clubs have been graphically highlighted by the Covid-19 crisis and with so many Clubs and indeed Leagues now sponsored by betting companies; the negative impact financially on football and in particular the Clubs themselves if the gambling industry pulled out of sponsorship overnight, would be dramatic.
It’s true that APPGs have no legislative power, however the Gambling Related Harm group does seem to be especially influential and personally I agree with the APPG Report recommendations – I’d like to see gambling sponsorships go the way of tobacco and alcohol, both of which were major sponsors of sport – but I know Premier League CEO Richard Masters holds a different view as he was quoted in February of saying that whilst he would co-operate with the Government’s review of The Gambling Act, he would oppose the banning of advertising on players’ shirts.
Realistically because of the potential catastrophic impact that banning gambling sponsorship would have on the finances of football clubs, the solution could be for other betting organisations to follow the lead shown by GVC Holdings, who apart from Ladbrokes also own Coral and BETDAQ.
In July 2019 BETDAQ announced that it had donated its final year of its shirt sponsorships with Sunderland AFC and Charlton Athletic FC to the charity ‘Children with Cancer UK’, it was an initiative that I was extremely pleased to applaud.
This was a positive move by GVC Holdings and it provided the opportunity for the ‘Children with Cancer UK’ charity to gain much needed exposure whilst at the same time gave ample notice to Sunderland and Charlton to find new corporate partners for the start of the 2020/2021 season. Sadly, the benefit of this initiative has been set back by the delays and the uncertainty following the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic.
However, if such an approach was taken more widely, together with the adoption of a more unified strategy to tackle the issue of gambling related harm; then perhaps, in the long run, there will be more winners than losers from football’s current obsession with the gambling industry.