BST column: Football cannot gamble with the welfare of players and fans

It's impossible not to notice the prevalence of betting companies in football sponsorship
It's impossible not to notice the prevalence of betting companies in football sponsorship

Some regular readers of this column observe that the same points are made on a regular basis. There are reasons and justifications for this.

The first is that for nearly a year now nothing has altered significantly regarding the dire ownership issue at Blackpool FC, though that might be about to change with next week’s court sessions.

The second is that it isn’t always the same people reading the column each week, so there is merit in making points more than once.

The third is that, given the ongoing boycott, there isn’t much opportunity to write about football we don’t get to see.

Anyhow, for the sake of focussing on something completely different, this week the spotlight will be on the changing patterns of sponsorship in the game, part of what the author Simon Critchley calls “the most basic and profound contradiction in football”.

He points out in his book, What We Think About When We Think About Football, that ‘its form is association, socialism, the sociability and collective action of players and fans, and yet its material substrate is money: dirty money, often from highly questionable, under-scrutinised sources.’

This week Paddy Power has been fined £2.2m for allowing laundered money to be gambled, and although the FA ended its commercial partnership with Ladbrokes last year in the wake of the Joey Barton betting scandal, the EFL has extended its sponsorship deal with SkyBet through to 2024.

This season Blackpool FC’s shirts are sponsored by a betting company. Nine of the 20 Premier League clubs have betting company logos on their kit this season as do 17 of the 24 Championship sides. It’s almost endemic.

It comes at a time when football clubs are finding it increasingly hard to attract sponsorship.

In a recent survey, half of the Premier League and League One clubs said it was significantly more difficult and nearly 90 per cent of League Two clubs.

Only the Championship clubs reported that finding sponsorship was easier than in past seasons, which probably tallies neatly with the number of Championship clubs being sponsored by betting firms.

Experts in the field of problem gambling have been voicing concerns. Marc Etches, the chief executive of GambleAware, said: “I think we are at a tipping point in terms of the relationship between professional sports and gambling. 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.”

The Premier League has declined to comment publicly on the issue, believing it is a commercial decision for the clubs.

An EFL spokesman conceded that 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 is supporting a Sky Bet initiative to visit each club to provide players with training on the potential risks of gambling. Does that sound like having one’s cake and eating it too?

More to the point are issues of legitimacy and mental health. When so much can be bet on during a game, the possibility of corruption and ‘fixing’ becomes so much more likely, as does the possibility of it becoming an escalating mental health issue for those with addictive personalities.

While football as a whole is growing more proactive in its approach to mental health issues (and the EFL has adopted MIND as its official charity partner), whatever one thinks about gambling as an activity the alarming rise in addictions is a huge cause for concern.

It is no secret that Blackpool has areas of significant deprivation, where mental health problems are at their greatest. MIND is an excellent charity and it does sterling work in the town.

If these were normal times at our football club, MIND would have benefited from the proceeds of every replica kit sold by Blackpool FC.

Given the impact of the ethical boycott, such revenue is hugely diminished. Therefore BST, in conjunction with Six Stars, has decided to donate the final charitable portion of monies raised by the sale of the alternative Blackpool shirt directly to the Lancashire branch of the MIND mental health charity.

Earlier this month we were able to present them with a cheque for £3,333 on behalf of Blackpool supporters. They were extremely grateful and thanks go to all fans who helped to support BST’s charity work by purchasing the alternative shirt.