In a sport which has never sought to hide its links to the gambling industry, the events of this week may just be the straw that broke the FA’s back. It was revealed a number of days ago that the English Football Association had a deal in place with seven betting companies, allowing their websites to exclusively transmit FA Cup matches, a move which has provoked widespread condemnation.
That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Given the ubiquity of in-play odds, casino shirt sponsors and half-times haunted by Ray Winstone’s floating head, the FA’s promotional ties to the world of betting hardly constitute news. The prospect of fans being able to watch extra football, which wouldn’t otherwise be televised, should only be a good thing. Shouldn’t it?
Unfortunately, punters who wish to watch the games in question on Bet365 must first open an account with a deposit or place a bet in the 24 hours before kick-off. Firms like William Hill and Paddy Power also have broadcast rights, and follow the same model of requiring viewers to place money in an account. In all, 23 third round ties were available to watch via the Bet365 website and app.
It should be remembered that the FA’s executives did not negotiate this deal themselves: instead, it was the work of a third party, the sporting rights agency IMG. Signed in 2017, the agreement runs until 2024 and the Association has made clear, in the face of mounting pressure, that it will not be terminated early.
The reason given is that the money earned in revenue would go into funding the FA’s grass-roots football campaigns. By hiding behind the palatable front of youth football, the FA, with no shortage of money at its disposal, is further discrediting itself.
Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport Nicky Morgan and Health Secretary Matt Hancock have both weighed in on the debate, if it can be called that, urging the FA to reconsider the deal. Sport Minister Nigel Adams has pointed to ‘the impact that problem gambling can have on the most vulnerable’, while even the Prime Minister has spoken out against the FA’s decision, albeit via a spokesperson.
This is not merely a flippant government grasp at a cause célèbre, a trendy new issue to distract from trouble with Tehran. Gambling addiction in the United Kingdom is a serious problem, and no corner of British society does more to legitimise and facilitate this danger than football’s governing bodies.
Of twenty Premier League teams, ten bear the logo of a betting firm on their chests. In the Championship, the figure is an even more worrying 17 out of 24.
The FA has publicly released statements concerning a previous sponsorship with betting firm Ladbrokes, a deal which would ‘[enable] Ladbrokes to engage with both their current audience, and drive new customer acquisition.’ These new customers, one can only assume, are young people, brought in by football, who are more susceptible to the addictive quality of online betting.
In spite of these liberal attitudes, the FA has meted out punishments to figures within the sport, like Joey Barton and Daniel Sturridge, for betting offences. While these players may have been in the wrong, one cannot ignore the hypocrisy in disciplining those who engage in a pastime actively promoted by the FA.
The timing of this news is also regrettable. All of last weekend’s cup fixtures were delayed by a minute in a symbolic move to publicise a mental health campaign, Heads Up, led by FA President Prince William. His efforts, and those of others involved in the campaign, have now been overshadowed.
Part of the initiative involved showing a brief film before televised games. Featuring in the film was Chris Kamara, ex-footballer, beloved pundit and star of various adverts for Ladbrokes. In advertising betting and promoting emotional wellbeing, the Association cannot have its cake and eat it.
The FA ended its partnership with Ladbrokes in July of 2017, several months after the agreement with IMG was signed. The Association lost out on a reported £4 million a year from the move, but in theory took an allimportant stand against the pervasive gambling industry. In reality, the FA had its hand forced and put on a show of piety that has since been abandoned.
550 suicides in the UK each year are linked to gambling addiction, hospitalisations for the disorder are on a steep rise and two thirds of men between the ages of 25 and 34 have placed a bet in the last 12 months. Not all those who bet on football have a problem, but enough do to justify a more stringent approach from the organisations which matter.
We must revert to the approach which banished tobacco companies, once just as commonplace as betting adverts, from the lucrative world of sport sponsorships. While gambling does not pose the same immediate risk to health as smoking, it is difficult to lose thousands of pounds in an afternoon on Marlboro Reds. With the rise of online bookmakers, it can happen with the click of a button.
The FA has offered a compromise, vowing to broadcast matches on its own website and other free platforms, a decision supported by the betting companies at the root of the scandal. Further matches have been offered to the BBC and BT Sport, but any action would have to be quick, given that the next round of matches commences on 24th January.
Really, though, this will not prevent the transmission of games via betting apps, and will only provide an alternative mode of viewing for fans.
The head honchos of our national sport will claim that this scrutiny is disproportionate, and that sanctioning bodies for tennis and rugby also profit from associations with bookmakers. This is true, to a point, but the consumption of football and promotion of betting markets have become so entwined that singling out the FA is entirely justified.
This needn’t be a witchhunt, but it ought to be a wake-up call. The FA must apologise, distance itself from Bet365 and the rest, and then move on from the row. The current ‘solution’ is nothing of the sort, and only serves as a clumsy side-step from the real issues.
While we’re at it, the FA’s official sponsors also include Budweiser and McDonalds, hardly music to the ears of alcoholism and anti-obesity charities. To borrow from a certain Greek fabulist, ‘a man is known by the company he keeps.’ To restore the FA’s reputation, chairman Greg Clarke must reassess the companies with which he surrounds himself.
Image: Creative Commons Zero – CCO