Lockdown, Gambling and Football: The Perfect Storm

T/W: This article discusses gambling addiction, mental health and suicide.

Gambling has always been popular in the United Kingdom. Almost half of the adult population gambles at least once a month in some shape or form. 

Since Covid-19 has changed life as we all know it, reports are materialising that the lockdowns are having a negative impact on the gambling habits of many, in that more people are gambling, more often, and more heavily. 

A recent study by the University of Stirling has found that the lockdowns have led to a third of sports bettors increasing their habit, with one in 6 partaking in new forms of betting as well.

Gamblers are already very likely to experience feelings of anxiety, stress and depression, in excess of large portions of the general non gambling population. In a time where a lot of people are already struggling, the feelings of anxiety and weakness that problem gambling can cause are only adding fuel to the fire. Hopefully this article can not only raise awareness towards an issue a lot of people are silently facing, but get to the bottom of football’s relationship with gambling and explore how moving forward the game can be a safer place for people struggling with addiction.

The issue at the core of gambling addiction is it’s discreet and insidious nature. It is a lot easier to conceal a gambling habit than other more visible forms of addiction. By the time it becomes visible the damage is usually done, financially, mentally or both. Given the ability gambling has to completely destroy lives, it is concerning that discourse surrounding gambling addiction is often out of the public eye.

 The last 12 months has offered many people an abundance of free time and less daily distractions to pull you away from gambling. Becoming absorbed in the world of gambling has never been easier, and finding reasons not to partake has never been harder. It is easy to see how even the most casual gamblers could see their hobby turn into a habit. People who enjoyed gambling with friends over a few pints down the pub could be now gambling at home alone, away from those friends who could talk you out of chasing your losses. Online gambling also provides the ultimate convenience, and has seen usage and profits soar since the start of the Covid-19 lockdowns. Granted bookmakers being closed will have some impact on this, but citing that would be the easy way out of a difficult conversation about corporate responsibility. 

This is where the football and advertising industries come into play. The beautiful game alone accounts for 47 percent of all money gambled throughout the country, according to data from the gambling commission. This is no surprise, as the popularity of football in the UK speaks for itself. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented levels of football being broadcast on television, due to the shorter gap between seasons and enforced break during the start of the pandemic last year. Fixtures have been crammed in, with teams often playing twice in seven days and some form of football broadcast on television most nights of the week. Especially with the return of European competition alongside domestic fixtures. For football fans this has been excellent, and a welcome distraction from the troubles currently facing the world. On the other hand, for fans that are struggling with gambling it is a constant stream of temptation. Football itself is not solely at fault, but the relationship the modern game has with gambling is problematic to say the least.

The amount of football has increased, but the amount of gambling adverts and nudges people are being exposed too has also. The whistle to whistle ban on television advertising during games is a step in the right direction, but the initiative is voluntary and does not extend to in game advertisements such as shirt sponsorships and advertising hoardings.

This is where the real issue lies. As of this season almost half of all premier league and championship clubs are sponsored by companies in the gambling industry, and most of those that aren’t have some sort of deal with gambling companies. Televised games are awash with gambling adverts and subliminal messaging around the side of the pitch. If you are a football fan, it is practically impossible to avoid advertising from the betting companies. Gambling With Lives was set up by the families of those who lost their lives to gambling, in order to support others and raise awareness of the dangers. Their initiative @the_bigstep recently posted a short video on twitter showing that in a recent game featuring Southampton and Brighton the word ‘bet’ appears on screen 22 times in just an 8 second long replay. The stream of nudges toward gambling throughout games is seemingly endless, I reached out to Tom at Gambling With Lives to get their input on why this saturation could lead to serious harm and what needs to happen moving forward. 

“Gambling companies have effectively hitched themselves to football through sponsorship, advertising and marketing. Clearly it’s big business – football, specifically the Premier League, is watched by billions around the globe each year. However, the problem is that gambling is a harmful product, and absolutely anyone who gambles can get addicted and suffer harm. With the industry taking between 60 and 87% of its profit from just 5% of gamblers, it is clearly a model set up to exploit addiction, and non-stop advertising plays a huge role in this process. The numbers involved are horrifying, with 1 in 4 gamblers suffering some form of harm and gambling addicts 15 times more likely to take their own lives. Tragically, research indicates between 250 and 650 people a year in the UK take their own lives as the result of their gambling addiction. The Big Step is calling for an end to all harmful gambling advertising and sponsorship in football. We’re not anti-gambling at all, but the saturation of gambling and betting advertising in football has reached a tipping point, and more often than not, these adverts are pushing the most harmful and addictive products.”  

With statistics as shocking as that it is clear that change is needed now. Those in charge have a real responsibility. Would a ban on all advertising stop people from gambling? Highly doubtful. However, I do believe that it would contribute massively to making football a much safer place for those struggling with addiction. Less adverts for gambling would open room for more adverts for harm prevention and support. There is definitely more room for discussion about the issue publicly, only then will the stigma and private nature of it be broken down. The betting industry in its current state is unforgiving, and it is easy to feel weak and ashamed when struggling with gambling. If you, prior to, or during reading this article have noticed your habit has gotten a little out of control you have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, and it is never too late to seek help and regain control.  There are a number of online services available despite the Covid situation which offer non-judgemental support, advice or just someone to listen. Please see the links below. Alternatively, if you know someone that you are concerned about that might be struggling, reach out and offer support – sharing a problem can save a life. 

Links to online support:

CALM – (Campaign Against Living Miserably)

Freephone: 0800 58 58 58 (National) or 0808 802 58 58 (London) – https://www.thecalmzone.net/

National Gambling Helpline – Freephone: 0808 8020 133

Gamcare – https://www.gamcare.org.uk/get-support/talk-to-us-now/

Gamstop online self exclusion – https://www.gamstop.co.uk/

Gambling Therapy – https://www.gamblingtherapy.org/

Gambling With Lives – https://www.gamblingwithlives.org/

NHS National problem gambling clinic – 020 7381 7722 – https://www.cnwl.nhs.uk/cnwl-national-problem-gambling-clinic/

Gamblers Anonymous – local meetings for gambler – https://www.gamblersanonymous.org.uk/