All Bets are Off?

Sport and Gambling: Has the Fun Stopped?

Where do you know Ray Winstone from?

If you’re of a certain vintage, you’ll probably recall his early work. Carlin in Scum, Kevin the rocker in Quadrophenia. More of a millennial? Then perhaps it’s his turn opposite Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast or as Frenchy in Scorsese’s Boston crime epic The Departed.

Or maybe it’s simply him yelling “put your trousers on, you’re nicked” as Regan in the 2012 remake of The Sweeney.

For most under the age of thirty, though, will know Ray from exhorting them to put their shirt on rather than their trousers off, in his role fronting online bookmaker Bet 365’s advertising.

This is not a slight on Winstone’s acting ability, more an observation on how synonymous he has become with one of the foremost socio-economic trends of the past decade. It’s a comment on the success of Bet365 – and numerous others – in taking commercial advantage of the advances in mobile technology that have driven extraordinary growth in the scale of remote gambling in the UK.

The latest figures from the Gambling Commission, for the year ending March 2018, revealed that gambling companies made £14.4bn during that period to which remote (i.e. online) gambling contributes £5.4m and betting, mostly on sport, over £2bn.

The rewards are lucrative and subsequently competition is fierce. In an industry where there is little product differentiation and low brand loyalty. Online gamblers have an average of four accounts with different operators so the battle for ‘share of wallet’ is intense and manifests itself in operators investing substantial marketing budgets to attract bettors.

Between 2014 and 2017, gambling firms’ TV advertising spend increased from £155m per annum to £234m and a BBC survey last season found that 95% of TV advertising breaks during live football matches featured at least one gambling advert.

That’s why you’ve seen so much of Ray.

It’s not just TV companies that have benefited from this windfall. Over the past decade, betting companies have gradually become the most prevalent shirt sponsors of Premier League clubs in addition to taking on long-term competition sponsorships such as the SkyBet Football League and the William Hill Scottish Cup. The 2018/19 Premier League season kicked-off with no fewer than nine of its 20 clubs wearing shirts emblazoned with the logos of betting firms.

But is this a problem?

According to the Gambling Commission, around 2 million adults suffer some level of harm related to gambling, including 340,000 that are considered to be problem gamblers. This makes gambling a public health issue and one which the industry has seen fit to tackle.

In November, The Industry Group for Responsible Gambling announced a whistle-to-whistle ban on betting advertisements during live sport broadcasts before the watershed, a measure that it described as “responding positively to public concerns about the amount of gambling advertising on television.”

Although the move was broadly well-received, with the chief executive of the Gambling Commission Neil McArthur calling it “a significant step forward in demonstrating that this is an industry that is starting to listen to its customers and the wider public” it inevitably attracted some criticism from broadcasters.

Stephen van Rooyen, chief executive officer of Sky pointed out that the gambling industry spends “five times more on online marketing than they do on TV”.

Mr van Rooyen has a point. As with most issues in the sports industry, football is something of a lightning rod. The prevalence of TV advertising and sponsorship by betting firms is far more obvious to the public at large than the vast numbers of online adverts served to bettors by dint of their digital gambling behaviour.

Meanwhile, as the gambling industry moves towards tempering its marketing impulses, campaigns have been launched that are designed to raise awareness of the relationship between football and the betting industry as well as encouraging moderation amongst bettors themselves.

GambleAware, the independent charity tasked with reducing gambling harms in Great Britain, launched #CanWeHaveOurBallBack in November, to ask whether betting-related marketing around football is contributing to the normalisation of gambling for children.

Its latest campaign, Bet Regret, aims to support the 2.4m young men considered to be at the highest risk of developing a gambling problem by driving self-reflection about their betting behaviour by drawing attention to the universal feeling of remorse sports bettors often get when they make an impulsive bet.

Most within the sports industry acknowledge that the revenue from gambling-related advertising and sponsorship has made it difficult for governing bodies and rights holders to eschew such investment. Taking what might be considered the moral high ground could, they fear, have a significant impact on the sustainability of their sports.

This, however, didn’t prevent the Football Association in England from stepping away from a sponsorship deal with Ladbrokes in order to reflect its increasingly strict approach to enforcing governing body’s ban on those involved in football betting on the sport.

For the FA then, when the fun stopped, the they did too and there is no doubt that pressure remains intense for the industry to continue to reform its approach to marketing in order to reduce its social impact.

This is why, when you hear Ray these days it’s less about the in-play and increasingly about how, as sports bettors, it is more important that “we gamble responsibly”.

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