“It matters more when there’s money on it,” the bookmaker Sky Bet’s marketing slogan used to say. It certainly mattered to our family, when my husband Luke took his life after struggling with a devastating gambling addiction.
He’d started out betting on football every weekend with his friends, doing exactly what the ads portrayed as harmless fun. Yet it’s anything but harmless. More than a million people are addicted to gambling in the UK, and every single day at least one of them takes their life. Behind every person who dies or has their life destroyed is a network of family and friends destroyed along with them.
This week there was another boot laid into all of us harmed by gambling, as it was revealed that up to 72 English football clubs have taken a cut of the money fans lose gambling with Sky Bet. It is almost unbelievable: clubs are encouraging their own fans to gamble and then those same clubs cash in when they lose. The more fans lose, the better it is for them. A family’s ruin is the jackpot.
It’s no secret that gambling companies have hijacked football, but it comes as a shock that clubs have conspired to also profit from a harmful addiction that ultimately costs lives. This is at odds with the community-focused, family-friendly image clubs peddle, paying lip service to things such as Mental Health Awareness Week as they rifle through the pockets of people struggling with a life-threatening illness. If football was serious about preventing mental health harm and suicide, it would stop promoting and profiting from gambling – an addiction with an elevated suicide risk.
If you are in any doubt about whether gambling companies, and in turn football clubs, are benefiting from misery, consider this: 86% of online betting profits come from just 5% of customers – those addicted or at risk. Gambling is an industry built on addiction, and it spends £1.5bn a year on advertising, in part to replace the large number of its key customers who are financially ruined or who die. With the advertising comes the inducements. Whenever Luke tried to stop gambling he was lured back, again and again, by direct marketing encouraging him to continue.
Last year, Sky Betting and Gaming sent offers of 100 free spins to many people recovering from gambling disorders who had explicitly asked to be excluded from any marketing. It was the second time it had committed such an offence, but it was fined only £1.2m by the Gambling Commission. Just last week, the bookmaker Betway was fined only £400,000 after it was caught advertising on the children’s section of the West Ham United website. This included a direct link on a page where children were invited to colour in a teddy bear.
These regular, paltry fines are no deterrent for gambling companies making billions each year. Bookies factor them in as a cost of doing business and carry on. Until the commission uses its power to remove their licences, the recklessness and harm they cause will continue.
With an estimated 55,000 children already addicted to gambling in the UK, the next generation is being groomed. My son no longer wants to go and see his beloved Leicester City at home, something he used to love doing with his dad. Leicester City has more gambling partners than any other professional club, and the constant barrage of gambling advertising around the stadium reminds him of the thing that led to his father’s death.
All 72 English Football League (EFL) clubs are forced to promote Sky Bet in their stadium, on their shirts and online. This deal is up at the end of next season, and it should not be renewed. The EFL deal with Sky Bet to profit from fans’ gambling losses was supposedly binned at the start of the 2019-2020 season, but some clubs will continue to rake it in under “legacy” contracts until 2024. No football fan should stand for this.
The government must publish its long-awaited review of the Gambling Act 2005 that promises to set out the changes needed to make gambling less harmful. It must include an end to all gambling advertising and direct marketing. This means not just removing ads from football shirts, as has been suggested, but from stadiums, television, billboards, the internet – everywhere. People will still be able to bet if they want to, but they, and importantly their children, won’t be subjected to an onslaught of nudges and inducements including so-called free bet and free spin offers to use addictive and dangerous gambling products.
The need becomes urgent in a cost of living crisis. The £14bn the UK spends on gambling each year benefits the economy less than if it was spent almost anywhere else. The Social Market Foundation argues that redirecting 10% of gambling spend into retail would put an extra £311m into the economy and create 24,000 jobs. And it is the poorest who are targeted and who suffer most. Deprived areas have 10 times the number of betting shops the most affluent parts of the country do. The seemingly recession-proof gambling industry will use the economic turmoil as an opportunity to prey on desperation.
Though it both hurts and gives comfort to think about it, I remember a time when Luke was alive and free from gambling addiction. I remember when I was happy and free from grief. Gambling companies ripped that away. They are causing people to take their lives because they want people’s money. And many fans are understandably sickened that their clubs have for so long been taking a cut.
Annie Ashton campaigns to raise awareness of gambling addiction
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