Saturday 26 May 2018

Sporting link to gambling has become a risky business

Whiff of skulduggery is always a danger for sports like football.

GAA director-general Páraic Duffy has highlighted concerns over gambling in his annual report
GAA director-general Páraic Duffy has highlighted concerns over gambling in his annual report

Rob Hartnett

Integrity in sport is of paramount importance. So too is the perception of that integrity. That is at the heart of a decision by the English FA to propose an absolute ban on players and officials in the top eight divisions of English soccer from betting on anything to do with the sport from next season.

It goes against the old image of footballers being young men with lots of money, lots of time and a willingness to bet on everything from cards on the coach to horses at Aintree and matches in the Champions League.

There have been moments when the finger of suspicion around a misplaced pass or an untimely red card has pointed at a nefarious betting coup. Sometimes that's been valid, sometimes not at all but the authorities have decided that perception demands a blanket ban.

It means that if the right-back for East Thurrock United, a fellow called Ryan Sammons as it happens, fancies Ronaldo to score in the Champions League, he'd better be happy just to be right, and not risk having a fiver on it.

In all honesty, it's a good thing for the perception of the sport. When there are loopholes there are problems and a half-ban on betting on games or tournaments they are involved in is less effective that an outright prohibition.

"The integrity of sport is absolutely key to everything we take bets on," said a spokesman for Paddy Power. "This has to be seen as a positive step."

Where things might get a little tricky though is in the broader commercial relationship between the sport and the betting industry. This is an increasingly important, and lucrative, relationship for the sport and the industry. It's rare but not unknown that something perfectly legal on the high street is completely forbidden in sport. It's perhaps unprecedented though that those behind such a service should be so prominent in the sport. No fewer than 20 different betting companies have some form of relationship with one or more of the 92 clubs in the top four leagues.

Paddy Power, Ladbrokes, William Hill, Betfair, Bet 365 and many more are all across the grounds, the TV broadcasts, the online channels and in many cases the shirts.

Skybet came on board as a sponsor of the Championship and Football League last July in a deal worth close to €20m, yet that is only 10 per cent of its revenues from 2013.

On a global basis, soccer now outstrips horse racing as the number one medium for a bet. Having an LED screen broadcasting 188Bet's message in multiple languages to an obsessed Asian and worldwide audience is worth millions to the companies, and to the clubs.

Yet from next year, all those players, managers, directors and officials at teams in the Skybet Championship or the Skybet Football League will be banned from betting on football with Skybet.

Six years ago, the sport decided that gambling sponsors logos should not appear on children's shirts.

The Gambling Commission is currently reviewing how betting companies are licensed and allowed to advertise.

Betting on sport is perfectly legal in Britain as it is in Ireland. The rest of the world takes a largely less liberal view though the massive tax revenues that can accrue from a licensed industry are making it more widely accepted. There does remain the whiff of skulduggery though, and in the high financial realms the sport of soccer inhabits, that is a risk.

An association with betting is a risk too far for children. It is now seen as a risk too far for players and officials.

The question will soon be asked then whether there is a long-term realistic way in which the sport can commercially take money from an industry it is uncomfortable with.

Sport is increasingly seen as the clear number one medium for engagement with consumers, staff, stakeholders, and as part of a company's corporate social responsibility.

As more companies from more sectors realise the benefits of a relationship with sport, the market becomes competitive from a buyer's instead of a seller's perspective.

Perhaps the days of a lucrative two-way relationship between betting and soccer are not such a stone-cold certainty as they once were.

Rob Hartnett is founder of Sport for Business, a membership organisation serving those involved in the commercial world of Irish sport. He will be a keynote speaker at a major Betting on Football Conference at Stamford Bridge in London on May 8

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