Parasite that’s corrupting the game I adore: On the eve of the Euros, RUTH DAVIDSON gives her devastating indictment of the gambling industry that has infiltrated every corner of modern football
Britain is a nation of football fanatics and our excitement is building for the Euro championships that start on Friday. The game delivers a thrill like no other.
That’s certainly how James Grimes felt about it. Like me and millions of others, he fell in love with the game as a child.
But football led James into an addiction that began with £5 bets on games when he was just 16 years old, then spiralled until he was a university student playing night and day at casinos and online.
The compulsion was so strong, he would set his alarm for 3am so he could wake up and place bets via gambling websites on football matches on the other side of the world.
His lowest point came at the age of 28 when, during 20 minutes in his lunch break, he gambled and lost every penny of credit he could raise.
Britain is a nation of football fanatics and our excitement is building for the Euro championships that start on Friday. The game delivers a thrill like no other. That’s certainly how James Grimes (pictured) felt about it
He was left with £100,000 of debt — ‘but it’s the thing I look back on with the least amount of regret,’ he says of the money. ‘I lost two jobs, I lost friendships, I lost relationships and trust with my family.’
Today, via his charity The Big Step, he campaigns against the insidious links between football clubs and the gambling industry.
What I found in my own investigation into gambling and football horrified me. As I peeled back the layers of this complex multibillion-pound economy, more and more damaged lives were revealed.
The level of harm inflicted by online betting is so high, I believe the Government must intervene. We can no longer hope the industry will act effectively to protect the tens of thousands being destroyed by their gambling addiction.
In the UK, between 250 and 600 people a year kill themselves because they see no escape from gambling.
My conclusions are echoed by Stewart Kenny, the businessman who co-founded one of the most successful betting websites, Paddy Power. He stepped down in 2016, frustrated that his concerns about problem gambling were not being taken seriously.
It’s not only offshore companies that are reluctant to act, he says: ‘In some ways, governments have got addicted to the tax gambling generates.’
But football led James into an addiction that began with £5 bets on games when he was just 16 years old, then spiralled until he was a university student playing night and day at casinos and online. Today, via his charity The Big Step, he campaigns against the insidious links between football clubs and the gambling industry
With Westminster drawing up new legislation — the first major gambling Bill to be discussed by Parliament since the Gambling Act of 2005 — the need to highlight the problem is urgent.
When the 2005 Act was passed by the Labour government, much of the concern centred on so-called super-casinos — betting emporia in the Las Vegas style.
Those fears feel very outdated. Today, we each have a potential supercasino in our pocket in the shape of a smartphone. Gambling sites offer ways to bet far beyond what is possible in a physical setting.
In a betting shop, fixed-odds terminals operate with a limited maximum stake and a delay between each game. It is still possible to lose substantial sums of money — but that risk is dwarfed by the losses possible when playing online.
One of the most frightening facts I discovered while making a documentary for Channel 4 was that about 55,000 children in the UK have a gambling problem. It shouldn’t be possible for under-18s to bet — but it happens all the time, and I’m sure the promotion of gambling through football is one way children are sucked in.
If you are like me, you lost your heart in childhood to a football club. Mine was Dunfermline Athletic and that will never change.
In fact, the longest love affair of your life might not be with another human being. I know people on their third divorce who still support the club they fell for in their schooldays.
But football and gambling are now completely enmeshed. The industry sponsors everything from shirts to stadiums to entire leagues. In the Premier League, 85 per cent of clubs have a betting partner.
I spoke to one academic, Robin Ireland at the University of Glasgow, who found that in one televised match between Newcastle United and Wolverhampton Wanderers, viewers were shown 716 — yes, 716! — gambling logos.
These were not subliminal glimpses: Ireland discounted any branding that did not remain on screen for at least two seconds. The logos were on hoardings, on screens, on kit, even on the tracksuits worn by the physios.
Everyone sees these adverts, including children who may grow up assuming that football and gambling are natural partners going hand in hand.
I believe the relationship is much more deadly than that. The gambling industry is a parasite that is taking over its host — and the highest prevalence of gambling is in Britain’s poorest communities.
Robin Ireland pointed out that many of the hoardings featured gambling adverts in Thai and Chinese — promoting websites to viewers who might be in countries (including China and Thailand) where almost all gambling is illegal.
This is international big business, which is why at least one British call centre run by a gambling operation has more than 100 Mandarin speakers.
Everyone sees these adverts, including children who may grow up assuming that football and gambling are natural partners going hand in hand. I believe the relationship is much more deadly than that, writes Ruth Davidson
Far more overt than logos around the pitch are TV adverts in breaks during the game, in which punters are often seen leaping up off their sofas, punching the air. We are encouraged to think that, if sport is fun for its own sake, it’s even better when there’s money riding on it.
And there’s truth in that. I’m not advocating prohibition and I recognise that recreational gamblers can enjoy a flutter with no very harmful effects. I’ve done it myself.
But online betting is changing the way people watch football. I sat in with a group of students in Manchester for a city derby, and noticed they all kept their phones in their hands throughout the game.
While I was absorbed in the action on TV, they were seeing it refracted through their online bets — with not just the goals and the result but every booking, throw-in, corner and shot affecting whether they would win or lose money.
To these young men, gambling on football was completely normal. They had seen the two linked all their lives.
And that has a profound effect, because the gambling industry knows how much young people love football. Clubs do amazing work to encourage the next generation of fans, with discounts and community programmes.
The best values of football represent everything we want for our children: team spirit, hard work, striving for success, professionalism, the joy of competition and the rewards that talent can bring.
It’s why I’m such a fan. But the gambling companies see the game as part of a business model that attracts new punters and invites them to try other casino-style products, with fixed odds, where the bookies never lose.
We have to start by banning branding and logos for gambling sites on team shirts. Advertising for alcohol was removed from football kits because it was recognised that excessive drinking does real physical harm.
In the same way, problem gambling does real harm to mental health. It’s time at last to take that seriously.
Ruth Davidson is a former leader of the Scottish Conservative Party. Her investigation for Channel 4, Football’s Gambling Addiction, is available on All4 (channel4.com)
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