Saturday 21 April 2018

Richie Sadlier: FAI's new deal takes it into the field of helping to create misery

'It seems the FAI has taken a slightly different approach to the government’s handling of potentially addictive and destructive behaviour'
'It seems the FAI has taken a slightly different approach to the government’s handling of potentially addictive and destructive behaviour'
Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

The Irish government announced plans last week to reduce the devastation caused by alcohol on Irish society.

Minimum pricing will be introduced on all alcohol products and tighter regulations will change how alcohol can be marketed and promoted. The Public Health Alcohol Bill acknowledges both the dangers associated with alcohol and the vulnerabilities of the people who are targeted by alcohol advertisements. There are areas in public life where we sometimes need extra protection.

Last week the FAI made an announcement of its own. It had nothing to do with alcohol, nor was it about promoting the well-being of the wider public. It was about spreading the domestic game to international audiences online. More jobs would be created and new technologies embraced during the four-year deal with new partners TrackChamp.

In this new world for the League of Ireland, supporters will be able to watch live games online while abroad, never missing the action involving the team and the league they love. The FAI's chief executive John Delaney spoke about the league's increased "global reach".

One other point to mention, though, is that in order to be able to see the games you must have an active online betting account. Or in other words, you can only watch if you gamble on a regular basis. Those who don't bet or refuse to start betting won't see a minute of the action. It seems the FAI has taken a slightly different approach to the government's handling of potentially addictive and destructive behaviour.

The defence of such an arrangement might usually begin with, 'sure where's the harm in having a small punt now and again? And why should the rest of us have our fun curtailed just because a few don't know when to stop?'. Martin Fureder of TrackChamp, however, went above and beyond the call when he came out with this beauty: "For us, this is about the democratisation of football." It's a spectacular line, even by the standards of bullshit we're accustomed to hearing from others in similar positions. He added that TrackChamp is a perfect fit for ambitious leagues to bring them closer to the Premier League and the Bundesliga.

John Delaney gushed about the potential benefits also. Increased revenues, enhanced brand awareness etc, etc. He said this can only be good for the national game.

When Minister for Health Leo Varadkar outlined the aims of the Alcohol Bill last week he was very specific. He said it would reduce A&E admissions and incidences of cancer, liver disease, obesity and gastro-intestinal disease. It will result in fewer suicides, assaults, sexual assaults and less child neglect. Road traffic incidents would also be reduced, as would absenteeism from work. To put the assumed thinking behind the FAI's deal into context, it is like asking the minister 'sure where's the harm in having a few pints?'.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of problem or addictive behaviour would gasp at such a deal. What may be in the best interests of the public's well-being does not appear to have been the first consideration here.

It's one thing to allow the betting industry to advertise within the sport, it's another thing entirely to do a deal that is constructed like this. It brings gambling in from the periphery to a more central role in sport, at a time when things should be moving in the opposite direction. It's like saying to kids they can't enter school without drinking a can of coke, or telling spectators they must down a pint if they want to come to a game. Making something like this a requirement of entry is utterly absurd. But just like the FAI's defence of taking millions from Sepp Blatter in private, the focus of this deal also seems to be blind self-interest.

The FAI's director of communications, Ian Mallon, released a statement following claims the arrangement normalised and promoted gambling, and that it failed to acknowledge the destruction it can cause to vulnerable people. He said it was no different to other data and streaming deals that many football and sports brands have signed up to. To me, that just reads like he's saying that since other people are doing it, why shouldn't we?

Estimated levels of demand to see the League of Ireland abroad weren't provided anywhere in the marketing guff that accompanied this announcement. I'm sure the size of the online gambling industry is a lot easier to measure.

TrackChamp's priority here isn't the good of the game or the well-being of fans abroad. It's little more than providing the league as bait to entice more punters online. They're effectively using the league as a gambling medium.

The FAI has formally entered the field of helping to create misery.

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