Stuck on you – football’s gambling problem

| By contenteditor | Reading Time: 4 minutes
The prevalence of gambling advertising around football has seen the industry become a lightning rod for criticism. But is the sector really at fault, asks Scott Longley?

The prevalence of gambling advertising around football has seen the industry become a lightning rod for criticism. But is the sector really at fault, or is it simply taking the blame for football leagues and clubs' desire to wring every last penny out of fans, asks Scott Longley?

The problem with populist measures – ‘take back control’ or ‘build a wall’ – is that they offer apparently simple solutions to complex problems.

A recent example within the gambling sector in the UK is the issue of gambling advertising.

In the face of pressure from the anti-gambling lobby and its friends in Parliament, some of the bigger names within the UK sector including GVC, William Hill and bet365, under the auspices of the Industry Group for Responsible Gambling (IGRG), agreed a voluntary whistle-to-whistle ban on sports betting advertising before the 9pm watershed.

The code, which will take effect next summer, was welcomed by, among others, Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party and one of the foremost critics of the industry, who said it was an “important first step” in addressing concerns over the proliferation of gambling advertising.

Now, the phrase ‘first step’ is obviously a loaded term. As Robert Painter, former brand director at Sky Betting and Gaming points out, while the industry should be congratulated for doing the right thing, “showing they are listening and acting responsibility”, it is a different argument whether this specific measure is the right path to take.

“Such a drastic industry move will encourage campaigners to move swiftly to the next objective,” he says. “I think there were other, better crafted ways to address public concerns.”

Dan Waugh, partner at gambling consultancy Regulus Partners, suggests the advertising debate is “another example of the industry getting suckered into binary debates”, which, he adds, the industry “is more likely to lose than win”.

Instead, he suggests an approach that is designed at addressing the question of what gambling ads should look like “in order to not excite concerns and irritation”.

“I suspect we already know some of the answers – for example, using lads banter as one’s promotional leitmotif is likely to cause legitimate concern (the clear targeting of young men, a high-risk group) and probably also irritation to anyone for whom Loaded magazine is not the crowning achievement of English literature.”

Never mind the quality
But content isn’t the only issue. Many of the complaints about gambling advertising are about the sheer quantity, but not all of this is down to TV ads. Indeed, the findings just this week from the Advertising Standards Association (ASA) showed that between 2013 and 2017 children’s exposure to TV ads for gambling had dropped by 37%.

Yet the TV ad breaks are far from being the only point of contact between children and the vulnerable and the gambling operators. The perimeter advertising, shirt sponsorships and betting partner visuals in pre- and post-match interviews are a large part of the public concern over the visibility of gambling.

They may not, as Painter points out, be quite as in your face as the TV ads around the game in that they are, as he terms it, “recessive” and feature just logos and brand names and rarely feature any calls to action.

“There is not the same sense of bombardment as TV unless you are in the anti-gambling lobby and you run a count of who sponsors whom of course.”

On the ball
Which is exactly what researchers have done. A study led by Professor Rebecca Cassidy from the University of London undertaken in 2017 looked into the frequency, duration and medium of advertisements for gambling in both commercial and public service broadcasts of English Premier League football.

The findings are problematic for those hoping that a whistle-to-whistle ban will spike the guns of the anti-gambling lobby. But they also pose some questions for the football authorities and the clubs.

The study found that “observable gambling instances” were present for 22% of the live Sky broadcasts and 30% of those from the Match of the Day highlights programme on the BBC.

The report states: “These results indicate that the exclusion of produced commercials from public service broadcasts does not prevent audiences from being exposed to large volumes of advertising. Advertising for risky products, and particularly online gambling, are part of the fabric of sporting arena.”

The fact that much of this advertising is for brands that, openly, are not truly UK-focused poses questions for various stakeholders, including not just the operators and the broadcasters but also the Gambling Commission, the ASA and football itself.

Painter suggests that these sponsorships and perimeter advertising are “irrelevant” to UK consumers but adds that along with raising the cost of marketing, it also “fuel(s) the lobby who argue that gambling is being normalised for younger football fans”.

If this is the case, then this isn’t just the gambling industry’s problem. A spokesperson for GVC points out that the non-UK-based nature of many of the brands advertising around football will make “creating a communal approach much (trickier) to achieve”.

“With this in mind, GVC is keen to look at ways to address concerns around perimeter boards and other marketing around live matches,” the spokesperson adds.

Yet what of football’s duty of care? Both the Football Association and the English Premier League were contacted for this article and effectively absolved themselves of responsibility on the issue by saying that each club was able to make its own commercial decisions on sponsors and advertising.

Taking up the issue of the close ties between gambling and football, a current campaign promoted by GambleAware plaintively asks the question: “Can we have our ball back?” It’s emotive stuff but in pinning the blame on the gambling industry, GambleAware appears to be ignoring the important role played by football itself.

Is gambling to blame for football’s avarice? And if football played a part on snatching the ball then what does that say about its claims to social responsibility? Maybe some of the difficult questions being directed at gambling should be aimed at different targets.

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