The UK economy, as well as Premier League teams like AFC Bournemouth and Stoke City, gains from sports betting ©PA Images
The UK economy, as well as Premier League teams like AFC Bournemouth and Stoke City, gains from sports betting ©PA Images

All bets could be off

posted by Paul Simpson
in Law
17 October 2017

The UK betting industry, which generates almost £14bn revenue, should support the footballing world before regulators step in.

“It matters more when there’s money on it” was the slogan Skybet used to promote gambling during televised football games.

But does putting money on matches make it matter too much, fuelling addiction and glamorising betting to younger viewers? With 430,000 ‘problem gamblers’ in the UK, this is the concern shared by campaigners, the Local Government Association and parts of the British government (which is about to publish a review on this matter).

Broadcasters, football clubs, advertising agencies and actors – notably Ray ‘It’s all about the in-play’ Winstone – who promote gambling, may find their business affected by a growing cross-party consensus that regulations need tightening.

Without being unduly alarmist, there is a chance that the forthcoming review – conducted at the behest of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) – initiates a process that leads, ultimately, to something akin to the 2005 law that banned tobacco brands from sponsoring sport.

The Belgian government is set to ban all betting adverts during live sporting events. The Australian government is thinking along similar lines – banning such ads before a 20.30 watershed in most sports and compensating TV channels for lost revenue by reducing the fee companies pay for their licence to broadcast.

The extent of the British football industry’s dependence on gambling was recently highlighted by BBC2’s Victoria Derbyshire programme, which found that 95% of 25 televised matches featured betting commercials. An ad spot during a Premier League game costs around £35,000 and, in 2016, the gambling industry spent £150m on TV adverts, with the lion’s share going to BT, ITV and SkySports. This relationship has been good for bookies too: Phil Carling, managing director of global football for marketing agency Octagon, estimates that the game accounts for seven out of ten bets placed in the UK.

The nature of these ads is, according to Dr Philip Newall, behavioural scientist at the University of Stirling, exacerbating the problem. By offering specific, complex bets, he says they are misleading fans. His study found that almost 60% of televised bets involved a particular player scoring. Odds for a team to win by an exact scoreline were also popular.

“These types of bets are attractive to gamblers due to the high potential win: however, due to the vast number of potential outcomes, they are very difficult to rationally quantify and forecast and result in significant average losses,” Newall said. These complex wagers are promoted heavily because they offer the highest profit margins.

Yet for some politicians – notably Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party – the gambling industry’s sponsorship of football club shirts is much more problematic. Betting firms sponsor nine Premier League teams, netting a combined £47.3m for this season alone. The title sponsor for the English Football League – the four divisions below the top flight – is SkyBet (which is 20% owned by Sky UK). Watson has pledged that a future Labour government will ban shirt sponsorship deals.

A recent report from Goldsmiths College, London University, underlined how conjoined gambling and football have become: it found that, during a typical episode of Match Of The Day, gambling logos and brands are on screen for 71-89% of the time – mostly on shirts, billboards and the backdrops during post-match interviews. In recent years, bookmakers have further extended their influence by paying sportswriters to preview money-spinning matches.

In their defence, bookmakers point to their investment in promoting responsible gambling. Unfortunately, a recent review by marketing agency Revealing Reality suggested that, despite the presence of several “passionate advocates” within the industry, “most day-to-day activity from operators is consistently poor”.

Clive Hawkswood, chief executive of the online gambling body the Remote Gambling Association insists that the evidence that betting ads are changing behaviour is “far from conclusive”, a bizarre claim that, taken at face value, would seem to imply the industry’s media buyers and the ad agencies they hire are incompetent.

Football is so popular in the UK – even the Duchess of Cambridge felt obliged to reveal that she supports Chelsea – that, Nielsen estimates, it attracts 80% of the gambling industry’s spend on sports sponsorship.

Many other sports enjoy their share of the spoils. Since 2006, when the ban on tobacco sponsorship took effect, the World Snooker championship has always been sponsored by a betting company: 888.com, Betfred, Betfair and Dafabet. Earlier this month, the Darts Premier League signed up Unibet, which also sponsors several county cricket teams. In the US, the National Basketball Association has just opened the door to shirt sponsorship – an opportunity most betting companies will be keen to seize.

It will be intriguing to see how bold DCMS’s review’s proposals are and whether Theresa May’s government – which has encountered more U-turns in the past year than most sat nav systems – actually implements them.

The clout of the gambling industrial complex should not be underestimated. Betting generates around £13.8bn in revenue in the UK – according to the latest statistics from the Gambling Commission. Bet 365, one of the industry giants, is the largest private employer in Stoke-on-Trent, with a workforce of more than 3,500.

There are, as Carling points out, ways the industry can help itself. He suggests building a “creative platform which demonstrates that the brand understands the sport, understands the fans and wants to use its power to make the sport better for the fans and the game itself”.

This is easier said than done. Fans are now bombarded with commercial messages – Manchester United has partnered with an Indonesian isotonic sports drink, a Chilean winemaker and a Vietnamese pharmaceutical company – and have become justifiably cynical about companies that claim to be acting for the game. It would take something dramatic – for example, Ladbrokes pumping millions into the Football Foundation, the body that nurtures the game’s grassroots – to overcome such cynicism.

If I was a betting man – full disclosure: I make an unsuccessful wager on the Grand National every year – I would suggest that your chances of watching a televised football match without being exposed to gambling adverts will, in the short term, be about as slim as England’s chances of winning the 2018 World Cup.

Yet in sport, as in the world of Lenny Kravitz, it ain’t over till it’s over. If you look at government policy on this issue – in the UK and elsewhere – the long-term direction of travel is towards more regulation, not less.

Betting companies need to start thinking the unthinkable. Corporate social reputation is merely the starting point. If they don’t, in ten years time, they could be left feeling, to quote a mysterious, and over-used, football cliché, “as sick as a parrot”.

The author was the launch editor of football magazine FourFourTwo

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