A betting firm enticing a player into a bit of light-hearted spot-fixing to help sell papers is being given the pantomime treatment. But it’s a genuine scandal – and a signal to the FA that gambling firms are already far too deeply embedded in the game.
In 2015, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo had to cancel a fantasy football convention he was organising. The reason? It was to take place in a Vegas casino’s convention centre – something that the NFL felt violated its prohibition on players being involved in gambling. Not actually in a casino, you’ll note, just a convention centre, a building where no betting takes place.
But that’s how the NFL treats issues of sporting integrity. Part of this, of course, is to do with US laws on gambling, but it also reflects a deep and commendable suspicion of the whole industry. It’s the reason why, for example, the NFL has always refused to consider, until recently*, putting a team in Las Vegas. (Vegas is one of the five largest US cities never to have had a major league sports franchise, although the Vegas Golden Knights, an ice hockey team, is due to play its first game in 2017/18.)
When the fun stops, check you haven’t accidentally switched on Ninja Warrior UK.
Compare this to English football. Half of Premier League teams now have gambling firms as shirt sponsors, most have gaming partners. And, until this week, it hadn’t occurred to many of us that this may be a problem.
Even the so-called piegate furore has largely focused on whether it’s right that Wayne Shaw loses his job. (It is.**)
I think the bigger issue, though, is whether we treat this as a timely warning about the threat of gaming firms not just to the integrity of football but to the health and wealth of football fans.***
Watch any gambling advert and it’s about heightening the thrill of supporting your team and the sense of Chris Kamaraderie betting gives you and your friends. Look at where bookies actually make their money, though, and the idea it’s a harmless flutter soon evaporates.
A question: what percentage of bookmarkers’ income would you say comes from the kind of betting you see Ray Winston commanding you to engage in at half-time? In other words, how much is fans putting, say, a fiver on Leicester to win the Prem at 5,000/1? Answer now.
Right, and what percentage would you say comes from fixed odds gambling machines and online gaming? Well, here’s the answer from Ladbroke’s last filled annual results (year ending Dec 2015) and William Hill’s half-year results for Q1 and Q2 2016…
So, less than half their money comes from betting, with an ever-growing percentage derived from what are little more than glorified fruit machines. This is like Las Vegas, where blackjack tables are being ripped out to make space for machines designed to create addictive behaviour. ****
Another interesting question: why did William Hill show a fall in online gaming revenue?
That’s right: William Hill attribute their fall in online gaming revenue, at least in part, to tools the government obliged bookies to introduce to protect problem gamblers. (These are things like reminders of how long you’ve been playing, to prompt people to break the zombie betting trance.) It’s been pointed out that, since other bookmakers must also provide the tools, William Hill may be using them as an excuse to cover operational failures in the business. Either way, it’s a tacit admission from the government and the industry that a significant proportion of betting income comes not from fans backing their team, but people with a gambling problem so severe that, if not reminded of the passing of time, they will keep setting fire to their own money.
Ask yourself too why, when every other retailer is moving online, are bookies continuing to open physical stores? A short bus ride from my house is Wimbledon town centre. The name, for those who’ve not been there, conjures images of wealth, privilege and polite nationalism channelled through tennis. But the high street itself has seven bookmakers within 500 metres of each other.
Wimbledon town centre: two Ladbrokes, two Coral (same group as Ladbrokes), one JenningsBet, one Paddy Power and one Betfred. This photo was taken with Betfred just behind me – four bookies literally within 100 metres.
This tumorous clustering is unlike to be solely attributable to the wallet-straining pride locals take in AFC Wimbledon. More likely it’s that bookmakers’ research tells them that here is a place where their fixed-odds terminals will find a willing audience.
This, then, is an industry that creates and preys on addicts. But, judging by piegate, we prefer to focus on what I’d regard as a critical but less pressing threat – that of gambling syndicates engineering match- or spot-fixing. It’s a battle that will always need fighting, but we need to consider the wider social one.
If it sounds like my description of the baleful influence of bookmakers is over the top, I’d draw your attention to this graph from the Economist showing the countries with the highest expenditure on gambling.
It was sent to me by Paul Dennett, an Australian concerned about the damage of unduly light regulation in gambling. It shows each Australian loses (not stakes) the equivalent of $1,000 USD a year. That’s nearly double the average annual loss of Ireland, in third place.
How did this happen? Strong lobbying and weak government have created a situation where ‘pokies’ are found almost everywhere. The bookmakers have managed to persuade people that having a gamble is as Australian as having a beer with your mates.
We none of us are stupid enough to think that football sponsors really care about the game. But I think we need to recognise that gambling firms are actually parasitic on the game and its fans. (No surprise, then, to find a Murdoch-owned business at the heart of this scandal.) Their aim is not to make sport more pleasurable, but to find and seduce those fans who can be turned into the next generation of gambling addicts.
Far from being key commercial partners, I think we should regard bookmakers as a threat to the integrity of the game and to fans’ lives. Far from allowing fans to be carpet-bombed with marketing designed to impoverish them, football’s authorities should treat gaming firms as it would cigarette manufacturers.
We won’t; we all know that. Nothing must come between football and ever-rising revenue.
At the very least, though, don’t let’s be distracted by poor Wayne Shaw. If you’re angry about what’s happened to him, blame Sun Bets. They cooked this up. They came up with the idea. They decided to use Sutton’s and Wayne’s big day for some PR. They created a potentially corrupt situation.
Boycott them. Write to the FA and ask they be banned from any football sponsorship for a period of years.
It’s time we faced the ugly truth that lies behind gambling’s expensively contrived image of chummy, carefree fun. If we don’t, if we just treat piegate as tomorrow’s chip-wrappings, then football will sink further into gambling’s smothering embrace. Those octopus tentacles will envelop it and squeeze more money from the pockets of fans, pockets that football already works so hard to empty.
This was our warning. Let’s not ignore it.
If you enjoyed this, please buy my book “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL”. That way I’ll have the money to write more things you might like. Oh, and please spread the word, too. Thanks a lot.
* I think there’s a chance that, with LA (the NFL’s previous favoured blackmail tool) now occupied, Vegas will be the owners’ new extortion tactic. In other words, they may not necessarily intend to move a team there, but with Nevada promising to stump up a huge sum for a stadium, it gives NFL teams extra leverage which they can use to extort money from local and state governments.*****
** Stupidity isn’t a crime, but sometimes it can and should cost you your job. Football gets loads of things wrong, sometimes by design, and will continue to do so. But Wayne Shaw, albeit without malign intentions, crossed a line. In situations like those, sadly, the previous good work goes out the window. It’s like a security guard bringing his kid to work and letting her play with the takings from the night safe. No real harm was done, and some people might look leniently on you, but you can’t complain if you get canned.
*** Full disclosure: I bet a few times a year. I had the Falcons for the Super Bowl in November at 19/1 and Leicester for relegation at the season’s start at 14/1. Fingers-crossed.
**** There is a terrific book, Addiction by Design by Natasha Dow Schüll, that looks at the way the gambling industry designs games and physical spaces to encourage addictive behaviour. It includes appalling stories like the frequency with which people actually soil themselves in casinos rather than leave their machine to answer the call of nature. Most disturbingly it looks at how other businesses, particularly social media companies, are drawing on insights from gambling to help design features into their products that will tend to promote addictive behaviour.
***** Yeah, got that wrong. Only weeks after I wrote this piece, the NFL green-lit the Raiders’ move to Vegas. Good luck holding the line against gambling now, NFL.