The creeping ubiquity of the gambling industry within the world of football is an issue that has been bubbling away for some time now, but three incidents in the space of a couple of months saw it suddenly boil to the surface.
It all began with a fat man eating a pie. In February of this year, as Arsenal were cantering to a routine FA Cup win over Sutton United, the non-league side's reserve goalkeeper Wayne Shaw made the seismic error of tucking into a pastry-based snack on the touchline. When he later admitted that he knew a gambling company had been taking bets on him doing so, a brief explosion of outrage followed, quickly resulting in Shaw handing in his resignation. Two months later, Joey Barton added another chapter to the most eventful run-of-the-mill career in football history when he was found to have placed 1,260 bets on matches — including at least five that he played in. He was banned from football for 18 months and, in effect, retired.
Two days after that, a flurry of six-figure bets from Asian markets predicted a late goal in an obscure League of Ireland First Division fixture between Longford Town and the Chinese-owned club Athlone Town. The goal duly arrived, involving considerable haplessness from a number of parties. UEFA informed the Irish FA that there is "clear and overwhelming evidence" of suspicious betting patterns, and an investigation is ongoing.
On the face of it, these are three isolated events that can be dealt with on their own terms. In two, a clear line has been crossed and punishment has been dealt accordingly; in the other, we can expect similarly harsh consequences if any wrongdoing is found. The boundaries in place are entirely clear.
Except things aren't clear at all.
The laws protecting the integrity of the game may be unambiguous, but the relationship between football and the betting industry is anything but, and the latter rather undermines the former. To put it another way: English football's clubs, leagues, governing bodies and broadcasters are all engaged in a spectacularly lucrative affair with the very industry that enables the type of events described above.
Of the Premier League's 20 clubs, 11 played last season with the logo of a betting company emblazoned on their shirt (the collective value of the division's shirt deals has more than doubled over the past six years, to over £220m per year). All 20 have some form of 'official partnership' in place with at least one betting firm. Meanwhile, England's three Football League divisions are sponsored by Sky Bet (to the tune of £6m per year). The Scottish Professional Football League's four tiers, the Scottish Cup and the League Cup are all sponsored by betting companies (Ladbrokes, William Hill and Bet Fred respectively, for a combined £3.5m per year). And the FA themselves currently boast Ladbrokes as their "official betting partner" – a deal heralded by the company's CEO as putting them "at the beating heart of the beautiful game" – which follows a similar agreement with William Hill.
Then there are the adverts. In Britain in 2017, to tune into any live football game is to be subjected to a long and passionate treatise on the benefits of placing a cheeky bet. There are live odds, free bets and in-play markets. There's Ray Winstone, Chris Kamara and Jurgen Klopp. And the sloganeering is relentless. "Get yer mobile out" and "'Ave a bang on that". After all, "Do you want to be a spectator – or a player?"
These ads have risen steadily since 2005, when the Gambling Act legalised advertising on TV, and their ceaseless screen time is the result of ceaseless investment: over the four years until 2016, betting firms spent about half a billion pounds on TV spots, the outlay rising the whole time. This season has even seen the emergence of a new format: the half-screen cutaway during the pre-match handshakes — a breathless reminder for everyone with a smartphone and an online account that there are still valuable seconds left before kick-off.
Broadcasters are not football authorities, of course, but their influence on the sport, directly or otherwise, is imperious. This is especially true in England, where the Premier League's most recent TV deal was worth an eye-watering £5.14bn, a record-shattering sum that single-handedly inflated the transfer market across the continent and is a central reason why English clubs remain able to attract superstar players.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that gambling goes a long way to funding a sport that, in turn, strictly prohibits gambling among its participants, and whose integrity has been brought into serious question lately by events driven by gambling.
On the one hand, we can perhaps be grateful that the antics of Shaw, Barton and co. have served to throw this uneasy relationship under the spotlight. On the other, it's tempting to see those issues as a red herring. Such events may indeed threaten football's 'competitive integrity', as the saying goes, but they also mask the fact that the gambling industry's most corrosive effects are not so much sporting, but rather human.
Consider again the TV adverts. They take various forms – the celebrity endorsement, the sub-Guy Ritchie fare, the bellowing disembodied head – but their core message remains the same: if you're young, male and you want the respect of the lads, having a flutter on the match should be little more than a happy obligation
This gambling-as-lifestyle-choice missive is worth considering in tandem with the fact that the average online gambler in Britain has three betting accounts. The latest research from the Gambling Commission, the UK's regulatory body, shows that the number of people who identify themselves as problem gamblers has risen by 40% over the last three years – and among 16-24-year-olds it has almost doubled. Two-thirds of online gamblers in that age group believe they bet in direct response to advertising. The conclusion is simple and clear: the ads work, and work well.
"In today's world of accessibility, young people especially cannot avoid the deluge of betting advertising," Marc Etches, CEO of the charity Gamble Aware, told VICE Sports. "The fact is that we don't know what the effects will be in 10 or 15 years from now – there may be none at all – but it seems sensible that a precautionary principle should be applied. It is only right that commercial deals involving gambling products should be balanced with a sense of responsibility to remind people of the risks associated with gambling."
* * *
As anyone who's ever set foot in a bookie's will have quickly realised, gambling is an enterprise that disproportionately targets the poor (it has been found that the poorest quarter of England's population spend double the money on betting compared with the wealthiest) and does so with minimal self-restraint. Betting shops cluster overwhelmingly in deprived areas, their hugely controversial fixed-odds betting terminals – described by campaigners as "the crack cocaine of gambling" – taking around £20bn worth of bets each year (the government moved quickly to regulate these terminals, strictly limiting their maximum intake to £50 every 20 seconds).
Crucially, the mode of gambling overwhelmingly advertised at football fans takes things a step further. Betting through an app on your smartphone not only eliminates the need to walk to the bookie's, it stops you having to hand over any cash, too.
The industry has also pulled off the ingenious trick of holding a presence within its ostensibly oppositional bodies. One charity, the Young Gamblers Education Trust, counts two industry executives on its board of trustees. In January last year, the same man was simultaneously chair of the Responsible Gambling Trust charity and the Association of British Bookmakers, lobbying on behalf of the latter despite being the figurehead of the former. Gamble Aware, the UK's leading charity committed to minimising gambling-related harm, is funded entirely by donations from betting firms (as prescribed by the Gambling Commission).
Some of the industry's employment practices are also deeply dubious: Ladbrokes' introduction in 2011 of a rule allowing their branches to be manned by a single, lone member helped them save £200m in five years. Since that change, unaccompanied shop attendants have been assaulted, raped and killed. Employees at Betfred, Stan James, Coral and Paddy Power are also asked to work alone on a frequent basis. All five are staples on the football's ad-break circuit, indirectly ploughing money in the direction of a sport that has spent two decades totting up ever-vaster broadcasting deals.
In the wake of his ban, Barton wrote: "Surely the FA need to accept there is a huge clash between their rules and the culture that surrounds the modern game, where anyone who watches follows [sic] football on TV or in the stadia is bombarded by marketing, advertising and sponsorship by betting companies. [This] is not an easy environment in which to try to stop gambling, or even to encourage people within the sport that betting is wrong."
The former Manchester City defender Martin Demichelis, when he was also found to have bet on football games a year ago, made a similar point. "I was just alleviating boredom by betting on some matches," he said. "What is incredible is that when you go to any stadium, there are lots of ads and opportunities to bet on games with lots of different companies."
Both players may have been making self-serving arguments, but neither was being disingenuous. Football's interests have become so entwined with those of the betting industry that it's hard not to see the FA meting out punishments to those two without detecting some degree of hypocrisy. Equally, it's not as though the FA does nothing to educate players in the risks and restrictions of gambling; both players breached clear rules.
On a side note, Demichelis' point about boredom may be especially salient: studies have shown that the age of the smartphone has seen the average attention span fall by around a third, to eight seconds, while the second most popular location for online gambling – higher than workplaces, stadiums or pubs – is on a commute. The genius of betting apps is that they prey on these twin-addictions, to gambling and to smartphones, in a single swoop.
* * *
Perhaps, though, some disentangling of interests between football and the betting industry is not as unrealistic as many purport. The FA chairman, Greg Clarke, has commissioned a report into the appropriateness or otherwise of the governing body's existing sponsorship deals, betting partners foremost among them, which is expected soon. And while broadcasters are unlikely to exercise any such self-restraint regarding commercial deals, there are thoughts that an ongoing government review of the gambling industry, delayed for the election, may lead to a crackdown on advertising, as has just happened in Australia.
"The level of betting advertising should certainly be a matter for public concern and discussion – across all sports, but predominantly football," says Marc Etches of Gamble Aware. "Given the FA's recent moves, maybe we're reaching a tipping point and football will take a lead in recognising the responsibility of giving a balanced message."
He may be right regarding the latter point, though such moral issues carry a huge level of subjectivity: some people will see it as wrong that the FA take sponsorship money from Ladbrokes, while others won't. And the notion of self-regulation is at least as questionable as it is admirable: is an FA-commissioned report truly the best way to delve into the FA's possible missteps? Will the FA really prohibit themselves from accepting the next lucrative deal?
We'll soon find out. What's less ambiguous is the frequency with which these incidents are beginning to flare up. A fortnight ago, the FA launched an investigation via the Gambling Commission into John Terry's pre-planned substitution in the 26th minute of his final Chelsea game, which had the dual effect of undermining the competitiveness of the match and causing three remarkably prophetic punters to win big. And last month, eyebrows were raised at the dynamic that exists between Sky Sports News, who report breathlessly on major transfer stories – often with information gained via their infamous 'sources' – and their sister company Sky Bet, who take bets on which transfers will and won't happen.
It seems obvious that football's entanglement with the betting industry needs addressing; less obvious is precisely how, especially as these are wide-ranging issues that fall between the remits of various would-be regulators – the FA, the Gambling Commission, the Advertising Standards Authority – but no single one specifically.
Given that the Venn diagram representing the financial interests of England's broadcasters, betting firms and football clubs increasingly resembles one big circle, any change will surely need to be driven by outside influence. Whether there is the will, or even the scope, for such action is a question that will soon be impossible to ignore.