Gamble! There was a time that this was my footballing mantra. An instruction and means of approach to the game I not only encouraged of myself, but would do all I could to instil into those around me. But then this was nothing to do with ‘accas’ or spread bets. Instead this was an attempt to get the university football team I managed to take advantage of the unpredictable nature of BUSA Midlands Division 4C level defending. So, each week we gambled on the bounce of long throw-ins, but never on the minute of the first one.
As I have mentioned in this column before, I rarely watch football on television. I’ve never gone in for the respective offerings of Sky or BT, preferring to get my kicks out in the open air. Christmas then, and a visit to my dad’s, now not only features among its traditions the annual exchange of t-shirt, books, whisky and socks, but also my first Premier League viewing experience of the season.
Crystal Palace versus Arsenal was this year’s festive offering, and within the opening ten minutes I was already surprised by what I’d seen. Not the resolution on my dad’s television, so vast I presume he purchased secondhand from the IMAX, not even Arsene Wenger successfully doing up his coat at the first attempt.
No, what stunned be was the ubiquitous presence of betting. In those first ten minutes alone, from the hi-res, unmissable pitch-side hoardings and players shirts, I’d already been encouraged to gamble by six different companies in three different languages.
And that was just during play. The commercial breaks on satellite sports coverage are absolutely saturated with a succession of nudges and winks to throw your money away. It’s fun. All the cool kids are doing it. You’ll love it. Did we mention how much fun it is? Go on. The initial pushers to try and get you hooked; peer pressure from those with no interest in being your peers; only your pockets.
It’s all in there; the repeated notion that ‘it matters more when there’s money on it’, the irritating low denominator misogynistic ‘lad bantz’ of Paddy Power. And of course Ray Winstone’s giant sentient electronic head; drifting over the landscape as if we were all trapped in a frightening Orwellian faux-Cockney dystopia. Hovering into view the moment any prole should have the temerity to check a latest score, and boom ‘Ave a bang on that’.
Where once Ray kept his patrols to pubs and bachelor pads, now he roams the earth in these ads, with Bet365 suggesting even urbane inter-generational families in Tuscan townhouses are pausing between macchiatos to slap some Euros on Christopher Schindler opening the scoring for Huddersfield at Burnley. Jeff Stelling too has been wheeled out to give some sort of levity and value to guessing how many corners there might be when Preston face Cardiff. ‘When the fun stops, stop’ says Stelling, at the end of one advert, eschewing the fact that for those who truly need to stop, stopping will never be just that simple.
Sadly, it often takes more than a nod and a wink from a man who reads out the latest football scores to conquer addiction. Though I may be late to the live-broadcast-football-gambling-omnipresence party, it turns out I’m not the first to arrive.
Back in October the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme looked into the volume of betting adverts during televised football and found that a fifth of all commercials aired during matches are for gambling. According to the industry these adverts have ‘limited impact’ and the effect of the adverts was ‘far from conclusive’. Which begs the seemingly unasked follow-up questions; so why are betting firms chucking £35,000 apiece at putting those ads out there? And, would a sector whose entire profitability is based on analysis of probability and mathematics, really be so blasé about the impact of their advertising? Betting firms simply aren’t that stupid.
Now look, I’m no pious mug. I accept that placing a bet is now as much a part of modern football as electronic substitution boards. But the thing is, we’re allowed to know the latter exists without ever having them constantly thrust upon us. We are not bombarded with suggestions that numbers matter more when lit up electronically and held aloft by Neil Swarbrick, nor are we encouraged by disembodied ageing actors to ‘get on it’ by waving illuminated digits about the pub. So why can’t we just be allowed to know about gambling – without having it bandied about relentlessly in front of the eyes of the vulnerable?
In the year ending September 2016 British gamblers lost a record £13.8bn, and though not yet published, the figures for the year-ending September 2017 are expected to exceed that. Some people can afford their losses. Many cannot. And the consequences shouldn’t just be dismissed as the bit where it stopped being fun. There is more than enough money sloshing about at the top levels of English football for a line to be drawn, and a moral stance to be taken.
Look, if you want to have a bet fine. Though I’ve never gambled on football myself – supporting Rovers withstanding – I concede that there are few more joyously comical moments than watching Doncaster rattle in a late fourth goal when a mate has bet on us to score only three. No, all I ask is that the rest of us be allowed to go more than a minute before being encouraged to join in. Before being told that we’re missing out on something. We don’t need the peer pressure. Just let us enjoy the game.
by Glen Wilson