Gambling woes won't ease if game is in league with bookies

Just over 24 hours after Kyle Lafferty became the latest footballer to speak out about his need for help with a gambling problem, Scottish '¨champions Celtic ran out against Anderlecht without a sponsor '¨visible on their shirt.

Hearts forward Kyle Lafferty is the latest footballer to admit to having a gambling addiction. Picture: SNS
Hearts forward Kyle Lafferty is the latest footballer to admit to having a gambling addiction. Picture: SNS
Hearts forward Kyle Lafferty is the latest footballer to admit to having a gambling addiction. Picture: SNS

Unlike Scotland, where betting companies have permeated the game, sponsoring leagues, clubs, bombarding fans with adverts, on TV and on in-stadia hoardings, the Belgium authorities are battling to keep them at bay, prohibiting advertising of online betting firms.

It was a timely reminder of what might be, as MP Tom Watson is calling for the same restraint to be shown in this country as the problems with gambling grow by the day. Speaking earlier this month, the shadow minister for digital, culture, media and sport said that recent figures released by the Gambling Commission indicated a 
worrying rise in the number of problem gamblers in Britain, providing ample incentive for football to distance itself from the industry.

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In England, the FA apparently agreed and had already moved to terminate a contract with Ladbrokes, just one year into a four-year sponsorship deal, which had been worth £4 million. They claimed that they could no longer justify the link while at the same time trying to warn players away from the dangers of becoming embroiled in betting rings or clamping down on those in the game found flouting a blanket ban on footballers having a punt on any match, anywhere in the world.

It is not a new issue, with card schools and trips to the bookies, the racetrack or casinos a long-standing feature in football. The group nature of such flutters did not rule out addictions as many can testify, but it meant that team-mates were often alerted to warning signs. These days the online options can silently feed the disease, making it more difficult to opt out before rock bottom is reached.

Lafferty said he was actually cut off by his bookmaker, who, having surveyed him, became as concerned by the answers as they were by his spending and the sizeable losses. That intervention is laudable and bookies will also point to the money paid to finance support groups and charities as a sign of them taking precautions and assuming their fair share of responsibility. But is that really enough?

Scottish football authorities have been more willing to take the industry’s money, and to hell with the consequences. While PFA Scotland visit clubs to educate and warn of the dangers and offer confidential help and support to those who still find themselves fighting a losing battle, the game’s hierarchy seem intent on putting money ahead of such problems.

Hearts’ response to Lafferty’s admission has been praiseworthy and the fact that players are now apparently willing to come forward and ask for help shows that something is working and may also embolden fans blighted by the same affliction to seek help. But the fact remains that every major competition in Scotland is tagged by the mark of a bookmaker. From the Betfred Cup and the William Hill sponsored Scottish Cup to the Ladbrokes branding on each of the leagues, there is no escaping the bookies, no matter how much many need to.

At the time the main league deal was done, SPFL bosses dismissed talk of hypocrisy, saying they saw no conflict in holding a hand out to accept the sponsorship deal while, at the same time, using the other hand to figuratively smack errant players, fining and banning those in breach of laws forbidding them from dabbling in football betting.

It seems that football and society
are sick fathoming out the dangers or gambling, or, having done so are hoping to grab more cash from the pot before things are forced to change.

In Belgium last night, Celtic could have opted to replace dafabet with one of their other main sponsors but, given tough regulations on the advertising of alcohol, their other sponsor Magners was also prohibited. Some say it is another intervention by those determined to nanny the state, others suggest it is a futile exercise and that the game has long since sold its soul to the devil and the odds on it winning it back are slim.

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Research findings from the University of London showed that gambling is now such an intrinsic part of football that those watching on TV are unable to avoid the industry branding and that does not even include pre and post match commercials or even the sight and sound of Ray Winstone encouraging us to have a bet, now. The study showed that even on the BBC, where they studied three episodes of the Match of the Day highlights programme, gambling logos or branding appeared on screen for between 71 per cent and 89 per cent of the show’s running time.

Which is why, with more and more people in the game, as well as society in general, succumbing to the lure of a quick flutter, Watson and the Labour party want greater intervention.

Just as tobacco companies were banned from sponsoring sporting events and putting their logos on branded goods because of the harm smoking can cause, it is surely time to recognise the damage that unchecked gambling can wreak.

The FA announcing that it was taking a step back was a start but, with a dearth of sponsorship options before the bookies came calling, the question is whether Scottish football can afford to do likewise. The counter argument is that, perhaps, morally, they can no longer afford not to.