Kenny MacAskill: Odds are that gambling will increase

Joey Barton's suspension will almost certainly mean the end of his career. Picture: Getty
Joey Barton's suspension will almost certainly mean the end of his career. Picture: Getty
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The suspension of the footballer Joey Barton last week for gambling made the headlines. The length of it is almost certainly career-ending for him. His suspension, though, highlights a growing issue with gambling, not just in football, but in wider society.

He wasn’t a player that even his own team’s supporters ever really warmed too, and sympathy for him was limited. But as others involved with football were warning, there’s a growing culture of betting among young players. The SFA and clubs do their best to educate and caution young players but it is all-pervasive.

It’s not just within football but wider society that gambling is expanding. It’s becoming normalised in this country where bookies still stand on High Streets when shops are closing all around them and where watching football on TV makes it virtually impossible to avoid it.

That advertising in sport and other sectors even has a name. It’s called “Gamblification”. It was a phrase I had never heard until an academic, who is an expert on the gambling industry, advised me that it refers to how they use sponsorship for its promotion.

In football, gambling companies now have almost wall-to-wall coverage. All three major competitions in Scotland are sponsored by betting companies. Many club shirts are emblazoned with the name of their gambling industry sponsor and trackside advertising is equally prevalent. Even watching major games on TV exposes the viewer to advertising breaks saturated by overtures to bet.

I’ve some sympathy for football clubs and the game’s authorities. They’re trying to keep their clubs and the national game afloat in tempestuous times and the gambling industry is one of the few ports available. The money on offer will be substantial and there are few alternatives able or willing to match the sums on offer.

It used to be alcohol companies that were the main financial contributors, but partly through legislation and partly through choice they’ve moved out. Into that void has come the gambling industry and their presence is now almost at saturation point. Football isn’t the only field where “gamblification” is occurring, but it’s the one with the highest profile.

Gambling has transformed over recent years and the industry has grown substantially. Moreover, how it’s done and who is doing it have also changed markedly. Individual bookmakers or small local companies have been supplanted by major multinationals and online betting companies often located in far-flung lands.

Gone are the austere High Street “bookies” frequented mainly by working men with bunnets; or sited at greyhound or race course outlets, with the odd casino in the cities. Now outlets on our High Streets and elsewhere are attractive, if not alluring. And as well as a proliferation of venues, online gambling and modern technology mean gambling can take place anywhere and anytime.

As a consequence, who is gambling has changed, with many more women and ethnic minorities now doing so. Previously, they may have viewed the High Street bookies or other sites as forbidden territory, but the new ways of participating have opened the ground up for them.

Now gambling is enjoyed by many and has been down through the years. It’s not something I indulge in myself. I wouldn’t know how to place a bet and a place like Las Vegas holds no appeal for me. However, I have many friends who like a flutter whether at the races or wagering on a match. They’re in good company, alongside former First Ministers or apparently the Royal Family. It can be an enjoyable pastime and its evolution in some ways is an improvement on the forbidden fruit that it once was.

However, there has been a “normalisation” of betting. It is promoted as a harmless pastime to be done almost anywhere and anytime. Since the Gambling Act of 2005 was brought in to try and improve regulation, exposure to TV adverts has increased by 600 per cent, and that doesn’t include advertising mediums such as taxis, billboards or other sponsorship. Every year, 1.39 million adverts are aired and its estimated adults see 630 per annum and children 211. All that has an effect.

I’ve met young people who would place a bet on their way to work, as others might buy a coffee or a paper. Harmless maybe, but it’s still something that should be abnormal and not routine.

Moreover, the easier availability of credit whether on line or on the High Street allows individuals to continue playing long after their money has run out.

There’s also a propensity for locating betting shops in deprived areas. Those sadly who can afford the losses least are pursued the most. The shops often contain Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) which are high-stake machines that have been linked with increased gambling and debt problems.

It seems that the problem of a gambling addiction has also been accelerated as a consequence. The evidence on that is harder to accumulate as hospital admissions and doctor’s records often don’t apply or wouldn’t record the problem. However, individual cases much more traumatic than Joey Barton’s confirm it.

Gambling’s there to be enjoyed, not abused. Maintaining the balance between people having fun and people developing a problem is needed. But as with other pastimes, it can become addictive. It is promoted far more than ever before yet the regulation of it is far less than in other areas such as alcohol or tobacco. It may be less of an issue than those, but it still needs monitoring, which must be rigorous and independent.

The matter is currently reserved to Westminster, with the Scottish Parliament restricted to action on planning or other limited areas. Therefore, with the election approaching, it’s an opportune time for political discussion. Restrictions on FOBTs are necessary.

Moreover, gambling is engulfing football and soaking into our society. That can’t be right. Individuals, whether young footballers or others, need protection. This isn’t required to limit people’s fun, but to ensure it remains a pleasurable pastime. Hopefully, action will follow, but what are the odds on that?