No dice? Gambling's punt on soccer fans
With 10 Premier League soccer clubs to be backed by gambling firms in the upcoming season, John Meagher asks if the normalisation of betting among young fans has gone too far
It is a memory that stays with Tony O'Reilly. The Wexford native responsible for last year's award-winning memoir on his battles with gambling was in a pub during a Champions League night when he noticed a group of six male friends.
They were football fans - that much was clear - but they weren't avidly watching the match unfold on the TV screens around them. Each of these young men, he recalls, had their mobile phones open on the table in front of them. He recognised the distinct colours and fonts of the apps they were accessing and knew straight away that they were betting on the game - in-play gambling, as it's known in the industry.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
"Everyone around them was watching the game and would have had no idea that these lads were gambling right beside them," he says. "And who knows how much money they were betting? Or how much they were losing. It could have been thousands, but nobody would have known."
In his book, Tony 10 - named after his username on the Paddy Power website - O'Reilly wrote in extraordinary detail about how he went from placing one small bet to becoming indebted to the tune of millions. The one-time An Post branch manager lost practically everything he held dear and wound up in prison after stealing €1.75m from the post office in order to feed his addiction.
Eight years since his last bet, he has become increasingly concerned about how the gambling sector has zeroed in on the world's favourite sport to hook a new generation. "Gambling has long been synonymous with horse racing," he says. "But you could almost say that football and gambling go hand-in-hand now."
This was underscored this week when England's all-time record goalscorer Wayne Rooney was unveiled by Derby County. Rooney - who currently plies his trade for DC United in Major League Soccer in the US - will start playing for the second-tier club from January and he will wear number 32 on his back in reference to shirt sponsor, betting firm 32Red.
Some have suggested that the gambling giant is helping to fund Rooney's estimated weekly wage of £100,000 in a league where players typically command a tenth of that salary.
"Obviously, the commercial opportunities this creates are widespread and significant," boasted Derby owner Mel Morris. "On the back of Wayne joining the club, we have just been offered a record-breaking sponsorship deal with 32Red."
Rooney, who has admitted to having his own troubles with gambling, declared that the number he would be wearing is "not a big deal".
Gambling has never been more visible in football. The new Premier League season kicked off last night with 10 out of the 20 clubs bearing the logos of gambling firms on their shirts.
A tier below, the Championship, sees 17 out of 24 clubs having shirt sponsorship deals with betting firms, with four of them - Derby County, Leeds United, Preston North End and Middlesbrough - all sponsored by 32Red.
It has been reported that English clubs stand to make £350m through sponsorship deals with gambling companies this season. It's a far cry from 2002 when Fulham - with Betfair emblazoned on their shirts - became the first top-flight English club side to sport the name of a betting firm on their kits.
Former League of Ireland footballer Darragh McGee is well placed to analyse the impact gambling's infiltration of football has had on young men in Bristol and Derry. As an assistant professor at Bath University, he conducted a groundbreaking study - independently funded by The British Academy and soon to be published - and the results are startling.
"The first big finding after three years following these young men's lives is that gambling has become culturally embedded and normalised in a way that's really concerning," the ex-Finn Harps player says. "Young men will tell you they have no issues until they are absolutely beaten." Many find themselves in huge financial and emotional difficulty. "Suicide rates," he adds, "are going up."
The findings from his research in Derry are bleak. "Derry has long been a city of absolute deprivation," he says. "It's got one of the highest rates of suicide in the UK and one of the highest levels of bookies on the high street. And it's no coincidence that some of the most extreme stories from the study were located in Derry."
Everything changed, he believes, with the Gambling Act 2005, which was introduced by Tony Blair's government.
"That decision to deregulate the gambling industry is, essentially, the watershed moment - we wouldn't be here without that."
It was legislation which allowed gambling firms to advertise freely on TV and radio and it's a freedom they have gratefully received. The in-play gambling mentioned by Tony O'Reilly became hugely popular thanks to a series of distinctive ads created by one of the UK's biggest betting companies, Bet365.
The commercials, featuring actor Ray Winstone, which urge viewers to place bets during live games on who will win the next corner or who will score the winning goal and by what method - and so on - have been heavily criticised by anti-gambling campaigners who claim it leads to irresponsible gambling.
"There's been a perfect storm, as I see it," McGee says. "There's been a technological revolution thanks to smartphones and mobile apps and, at the same time, social media explodes so you've access to marketing companies, gambling or otherwise.
"And, then, since the turn of the millennium, elite football is seen less as sport and more a part of the entertainment industry. Players have become more and more powerful and we arrive at this moment with Wayne Rooney."
Waterford-based counsellor Barry Grant specialises in helping people with addictions.
He says he is grimly fascinated by the Rooney-32Red news this week. "It's yet further proof about how normalised gambling has become, not just in football but in everyday life.
"These companies employ the very best people to devise their strategies and to make betting seem like harmless fun." But while many people can happily gamble now and again and suffer no ill effects, others are not so lucky.
"It really can destroy lives," he says, "and it's never been easier to gamble. Thanks to our phones, we can bet money anywhere, at any time and on anything and the apps that the companies have created are so easy to use."
Grant is especially concerned about how the increased visibility of gambling can have an impact on children. "That's where football really comes in," he says. "The brand names on the shirts are seen and remembered by kids and a study done on how prominent betting firms were on Match of the Day shows that they're being exposed to betting firms at an alarming rate."
The study in question found that the BBC's flagship Premier League highlights programme featured the name of a gambling company once every 10 seconds - usually during close-up footage of players bearing Bet365, Fun888, Betway (and so on) on their shirts.
A notable feature of the rush by the gambling industry to have sponsorship deals with football clubs is the prevalence of companies with little or no business on this side of the world, but which are huge in places like Asia and Africa. It's a sign of the global appeal of English football, but it comes at a price.
A report on Everton's shirt sponsor SportPesa by the Guardian's David Conn suggested that the Kenyan-Bulgarian firm was having a detrimental impact among young men in Kenya. The paper noted a sharp rise in gambling addiction and suicides there since mobile technology took off in the country in 2014. SportPesa's first foray into the Irish football market began last year, when it partnered with Cork City.
The GAA has outlawed betting companies from jersey sponsorship deals and says it will not form official partnerships with the industry. It's thought to be one of the few sporting organisations in the world to adopt such a stance. But as the Offaly footballer Niall McNamee, who has himself suffered with a gambling dependency, points out, betting is commonplace in clubs throughout the country, especially when it comes to fundraising drives.
McNamee is one of several high-profile GAA players who has spoken about becoming addicted to gambling at an early age and he is gravely concerned about how football is helping to inspire a new generation to take their first bet.
"It's just too easy now," he says. "It feels like a game rather than something real. If you go into a bookies, you're handing over cash, but if you're on your phone, as most people are now, you don't have the same association of losing money.
"And that's something the betting companies are all too aware of - people are far more likely to take risks when they're not physically handing over money."
McNamee believes cross-channel football needs to crack down in much the way that it was forced to do when it came to tobacco sponsorship. "You'd have to be very worried about children watching sport today and having all these betting companies so visible," he says. "The message they're getting is that it's normal."
Now 33, McNamee hasn't gambled since he was 25 and he is determined to stay on the straight and narrow. But he admits that it can be very difficult to escape gambling's seductive message, especially if you're a sports lover.
"If I watch a [Premier League] match now, I have to switch over when the ads come on at half time because there will be so many from betting companies. But, chances are, if you're watching a match, you'll see the brand names [on the shirts] all the time."
So commonplace are sponsors in football now that even some of the leading betting firms are urging change. Paddy Power announced an initiative, Save Our Shirt, calling on betting companies to remove their logos from playing kits. In its sponsorship of Championship side Huddersfield Town, the Irish firm has taken its name off the kit - but not before pulling a much-publicised stunt which saw the club release a shirt with 'Paddy Power' emblazoned sash-style much to the outrage of the Yorkshire side's fans.
Darragh McGee questions just how altruistic the firm is being. "I always take a step back from the gambling companies and ask, 'What are you really up to here?' It's not hard to see what they're up to. Paddy Power is already one of the Big Five.
"I think the gambling companies know there is a growing momentum for change. They're not stupid. They recognise that. In some ways, they're trying to stave off real, meaningful legislation. They fear becoming seen as the tobacco industry when it comes to sport where the point is reached where we go, 'No more - regulation is needed'."
Tony O'Reilly also longs for a day when he can watch football without constantly reminded of gambling. "For a long time, it was really difficult," he says. "There are triggers everywhere. You just have to train yourself not to think that way and to just enjoy the games for what they are. But they don't make it easy."
Rebuilding his life and mending relationships has taken a long time, and his book has helped with the process. But he hopes it will be a cautionary tale for others.
"There are so many free €10 bets being offered to new customers," he says. "You see it everywhere and, of course, it's tempting but just be aware of where it could lead you. My nightmare began with a simple £1 bet."
Soccer's betting deals in numbers
is the estimated value of sponsorship deals from betting companies in English club football for the 2019/20 season
Premier League clubs (out of 20) have shirt sponsorship deals with gambling firms. West Ham's arrangement with Betway is thought to be the most lucrative, worth £10m this season
Championship clubs (out of 24) have shirt deals with betting operators - and four of them are sponsored by one firm, 32Red. Stoke City are sponsored by home-town firm Bet365 and their ground has been renamed the Bet365 Stadium.
None of the so-called Big Six - Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Spurs - have primary sponsorship deals with gambling companies. Man Utd's deal with Chevrolet is thought to be biggest, followed by City and Etihad.
Scottish football's big two, Celtic and Rangers, are sponsored by betting firms Dafabet and 32Red respectively, while Ladbrokes are title sponsor of the Scotland's top four leagues. In England, Sky Bet sponsor The Championship, League One and League Two.