Experts on problem gambling have described the growing number of football clubs with betting firms and online casinos on their shirts as “disturbing” and “worrying” and said a national debate on the potential harm is overdue.
Nearly 60% of the clubs in England’s top two divisions will have gambling companies on their shirts this season – nine of 20 in the Premier League and a staggering 17 of 24 teams in the Championship.
Sky Bet sponsor all three of the EFL’s divisions but it is the situation in the Championship, where the number of gambling sponsors most concerns charities which deal with the negative consequences of the UK’s £14bn gambling industry.
“This is worrying,” Gambling Watch UK’s Professor Jim Orford told PA Sport. “There is evidence that gambling is becoming ever more normalised, particularly among young people, so that increasingly betting is seen as part and parcel of following and supporting one’s favourite sport or team.”
According to the Gambling Commission’s most recent statistics, there are 430,000 adult problem gamblers in the UK, with a further two million at risk of developing a problem.
In another alarming statistic, 370,000 children aged 11 to 16 gamble each week and 25,000 of those are classed as problem gamblers.
Orford said the gambling industry’s link with football is particularly problematic as it so pervasive. He also said there was “increasing worry” about the grey area between social media gambling, which is popular with youngsters and often free, and real gambling.
“Many people think gambling is now out of control in Britain which has the most liberal online gambling regulations of any European country,” Orford added.
Marc Etches, the chief executive of GambleAware, agrees. “I think we are at a tipping point in terms of the relationship between professional sports and gambling,” he said.
“We have a generation of fans who believe you have to bet on football to enjoy it and that is disturbing and concerning. The time is now for a much-needed debate about how we do this. Watching football and having a bet is becoming normalised but we’re not talking about it.”
Etches added that he wrote to all the Premier League clubs about his concerns last year, and praised Crystal Palace for working with GambleAware on a “safer gambling” campaign over three games at the end of last season.
When asked if football was getting too close to the gambling industry, the Premier League declined to comment but is understood to believe it is up to the clubs to decide the companies they agree deals with. Betting firms are not allowed to sponsor clubs’ youth team shirts or for replica shirts sold in children’s sizes.
Professional players are not allowed to bet on football matches anywhere, or personally to endorse a betting brand. In the wake of the controversy surrounding Joey Barton’s ban for gambling in 2017, the FA ended its partnership with Ladbrokes. This move was viewed as an admission that Barton had a point when he criticised the game for the mixed messages it sends to players about betting. The national governing body, however, said “the leagues and clubs govern their own relationships with gambling companies”.
An EFL spokesman said sponsorship deals with gambling firms “make a significant contribution to the ongoing financial sustainability of professional football at all levels” but said the league has agreed a memorandum of understanding with Sky Bet to ensure that relationship is “socially responsible”.
The EFL has also launched a “responsible gambling” campaign which will see players in all three divisions wearing new sleeve badges. The league is also updating its guidance to clubs on “responsible practices” and supporting a Sky Bet initiative to visit each club to provide players with training on “the potential risks associated with gambling”.