Kimberly Wadsworth was 32 when she took her own life in 2018. The passionate Leeds fan who worked in marketing was a gambling addict. Having begun on the fixed-odds betting terminals found in any high-street bookmaker she had graduated to online casinos.

There she was plied with “free” bets and gained VIP status from the companies she gambled with. They incentivised her to keep playing even when her losses were heavy. Hers is a not unfamiliar story – Public Health England estimates there are 409 gambling-related suicides each year in England – but she is a reminder that gambling addiction is not an exclusively male affliction.

On Friday and Saturday, Kimberly’s mother, Kay, will join recovering gambling addicts and other families who have lost loved ones to gambling-related suicide in walking to five Yorkshire football grounds, starting with an early appointment at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough. From there the group of more than 30 will visit Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane, Rotherham’s New York Stadium and Barnsley’s Oakwell.

On Saturday, the group take the 19 miles from Barnsley to Leeds to complete 41 miles over two days. They have been allowed by club officials to take pictures inside Elland Road. “I am proud to walk in Kimberly’s memory with people who have suffered the harm and devastation that gambling addiction brings,” said Kay. “These harmful gambling products are designed to hook people in, regardless of their background, so we are calling on football to stop promoting them to millions of young fans.”

The event is the latest organised by the Big Step, a campaign to end gambling advertising and sponsorship in football, led by people harmed by gambling. Previous events include July’s 70-person walk from Manchester to Liverpool in memory of Ryan Myers, a 27-year-old Liverpool-supporting carpenter. In February, a three-day hike took in Scottish stadiums on the route from Edinburgh to Glasgow in remembrance of Lewis Keogh, a 34-year-old Sheffield Wednesday fan.

This weekend’s walk’s aim is highlighting, in the words of James Grimes, the organiser and Big Step founder, that “this is not just a male issue. Although football was a part of Kimberly’s addiction so were other parts of gambling that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with a young, male football fan.”

Football club shirts, websites, social media, pitchside banners and in particular TV advertising continue to be awash with gambling, despite lobbying that aims to protect young eyes from being enticed. Grimes is a recovering addict whose 12-year journey from football betting as a 16-year-old Tottenham fan took in about 50 gambling companies across myriad betting products including online casinos to the point of being “basically suicidal” after a heavy losing run on a fixed-odds betting terminal.

Elland Road
The walk, in memory of loved ones lost to gambling-related suicide, will finish at Elland Road on Saturday. Photograph: Craig Brough/Reuters

“Spurs had a casino on the front of their shirts at that time: Mansion. That was a company I went on to use and it quickly consumed all of my life. Football was a constant in it. Whenever I saw new companies pop up on shirts or the side of the pitch, I would use those sites. It sucked everything away from me. I turned from a happy, normal boy into a hopeless, helpless wreck of a man.

“The thing I try to emphasise is that it was only gambling that did that. I had a great upbringing, there was no trauma, I never had an addiction to anything else.”

Grimes believes he fell victim to the liberalised 2005 Gambling Act that opened up the flood of betting advertising. From there, the 18-25 market, especially vulnerable, was exposed to a cornucopia of gambling products in which football bets became a gateway drug towards becoming the VIP clients companies take heavy profit from.

Could things be changing? Of the five Yorkshire clubs visited by the Big Step this weekend, only one, Leeds, has a betting shirt sponsor, the Manx-based SBOTOP. Barnsley began the season with a rapidly curtailed cryptocurrency deal, a reminder of clubs’ eternal attraction to easy money. When the Big Step campaign began in 2019, 28 of 44 Premier League and Championship clubs had betting shirt sponsors, a number now reduced to 14.

Despite heavy lobbying and growing resistance among fans, betting advertising pervades on TV, radio and the web. A government white paper on gambling reform was postponed for a fourth time in July. The presence in government of the anti-gambling advocate Chris Philp, chief secretary to the Treasury, and the influence of Iain Duncan Smith, similarly minded, in Liz Truss’s leadership campaign are yet to be brought to bear. For now, football clubs continue to act as advertising boards for an industry held responsible for the loss of Kimberly and many others.

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 and the domestic abuse helpline is 0808 2000 247. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the US, the suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

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