Named and shamed: the A-listers – and football clubs – making millions from online gambling’s misery

·8 min read
Jose Mourinho is among those to have featured in sports betting adverts - NIGEL RODDIS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Jose Mourinho is among those to have featured in sports betting adverts - NIGEL RODDIS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

It was seeing the names of betting companies on the shirts of the Tottenham Hotspur players he idolised as a teenager that first got James Grimes into gambling. That and the firms’ logos all round the ground when he went there on Saturdays.

“It normalised it for me,” says the former addict whose campaign, The Big Step, aims to sever the link between football and the gambling industry. “It corrupts the minds of young people”.

Recent reports suggest that the Government is poised to back down on its promises to take what Grimes says would be a major step towards achieving that goal. Leaks from its plan for reducing the damage done by gambling addiction indicate that it will fall short of a ban on gambling firms sponsoring the shirts of major football teams. Instead a voluntary scheme is mooted.

Why it matters, allege campaigners like Grimes and the charity Gambling With Lives, is that they believe gambling promotion around football matches and stadia is specifically designed by the industry to target vulnerable young fans and make them think that placing online bets is fun and risk-free.

Yet Public Health England in September last year reported 409 suicides in the previous 12 months linked to gambling. That is more than one every day at the same time that Britain’s gambling industry, one of the world’s largest, made profits of £14.2 billion in 2020.

“Fans look at the footballers in the adverts and wearing the shirts,” says former Arsenal player and recovering gambling addict Paul Merson. “They see they are rich and think they can get rich too by gambling.”

In a recent BBC documentary Merson was especially stinging in his criticism of “multi-millionaire” players and managers who agree to appear in gambling commercials. “Do they need the money? Do they really need that extra £50,000?”

Jose Mourinho, Jack Wilshire, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Harry Redknapp, Micah Richards and Roy Keane are among those who have taken the cash for on-screen endorsements.  And those who know about the fees paid suggest that Merson’s figure of £50,000 may be understating it.

The gambling companies for their part are tight-lipped on the sort of sums that are paid out. But one rough comparison might be the £7.5 million Hollywood A-listers Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert de Niro each reportedly earned in 2015, when they appeared in a short promotional film for the Studio City gambling complex in Macau.

However, such big-name evangelists are going to be fewer once new rules from the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority kick in this October. It will ban celebrities and sporting stars from appearing in gambling adverts if they are figures who could be judged to influence the choices of young people.

Quite how that impact be measured is as yet unclear, says Will Prochaska, strategy director at Gambling With Lives. “It won’t, however, stop Skybet’s name being on The Overleap, a YouTube channel where ex-England player Gary Neville interviews today’s stars, or other sorts of advertisements by gambling firms appearing in teenage football magazines. Their whole business model is built on attracting the next generation of gamblers.”

Neither will it get rid of the “loot boxes” in the sort of sports-based video games used by nearly 40 per cent of children. They allow and indeed encourage their young players to spend money on hit-or-miss in-game rewards. In Belgium, the argument that there is a link between these “loot boxes”, and young people being drawn into gambling, has been accepted by legislators who have them classified as betting products.

Yet despite a House of Lords report in 2020 suggesting that, of Britain’s third of a million problem gamblers, 55,000 are children, the Government’s long-awaited review of gambling legislation, promised in the 2019 Conservative election manifesto to protect young lives, will miss its target.

Roy Keane and Micah Richards have appeared in an advert for SkyBet - Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images
Roy Keane and Micah Richards have appeared in an advert for SkyBet - Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images

The Government looks likely to allow the Premier League sides that took gambling industry payments, estimated at £4-6 million each last season for short sponsorship, to continue doing so in the next. Nine out of 20 Premier League sides did so. This number will actually rise to 10 since  Everton have just swapped the £9.6 million they received for shirt sponsorship last season from car dealer Cazoo in favour of “a club-record fee”, said to be as high as £12 million, to link up instead with, one of the gambling industry’s largest online operators of casinos and sports betting.

Any government-promoted voluntary scheme is going to struggle to make headway against the current run of play in football. And it is a far cry from the recommendation of the same House of Lords committee that “no gambling advertising in or near sports grounds or sports venues” should be allowed. It highlighted that 60 per cent of the gambling industries profits came from the five per cent of gamblers with damaging addictions.

For their part most football clubs continue to argue against any such bans on commercial grounds. Rick Parry, chairman of the English Football League, has predicted that of the 72 clubs he represents, several would “go under” if the £40 million per year they collectively earn from gambling sponsorship was lost to new Government regulations.

Yet some clubs, 20 so far, including Luton Town who came within a whisker of making it into the Premier League last season, have broken ranks and publicly signed up to The Big Step’s campaign to banish gambling advertisements from their grounds.

Alongside the commercial arguments for football continuing to promote gambling are others of a more philosophical nature. They present any ban on shirt sponsorship as “nanny-state” interference in the sort of individual liberties that some of Boris Johnson’s backbench Tory MPs are keen to see the under-fire Prime Minister defending. It is being floated as one explanation for the rumoured backtracking when the report comes out.

It has been confirmed, in fairness, that the official report will contain other measures. Maximum stakes in online casinos will be set at between £2 and £5. There will be a ban on free bets and VIP packages for those with heavy losses to entice them to get in deeper.

“Non intrusive” affordability checks will be mandatory, and the regulator, the Gambling Commission, will be given more powers. A new ombudsman will hold betting firms to account for their social responsibility – though there is no mention of applying the same test to the sports stars who profit by advertising gambling.

All of which makes Ben Melvin shake his head in disappointment. A lifelong Everton fan, he has launched an online petition to change the club’s mind about cosying up to So far over 21,000 supporters have signed up.

Everton's new sponsorship deal will net the club “a club-record fee”, said to be as high as £12 million - REUTERS/Peter Powell
Everton's new sponsorship deal will net the club “a club-record fee”, said to be as high as £12 million - REUTERS/Peter Powell

The 35-year-old oil refinery process operator from Ellesmere Port in Cheshire knows all too well how pernicious and damaging pro-gambling messages can be for young fans. He had begun by playing “penny fruit machines” at 13, he says, but it was as a regular at home matches at Goodison, Everton’s current stadium, that in his late teens he was drawn into heavy online gambling.

“I will never know why it took such a hold of me,” the father-of-two says, “but I do know that the promotion and advertising of betting in sport and by sports people played its part.”

By his twenties, with his mobile phone, he had “a casino in the palm of my hand.  It was the first thing I thought about each morning and the last thing at night. When I did try to give up having a bet on the Everton match, I found I didn’t even enjoy watching the football as much.”

Crippling debts and self-loathing led him to seek to break the habit. He has now gone two and a half years without gambling.

What he regrets most, Melvin says, is not the debts that he will be paying off for the rest of his life, but the lies and deceit that he used to keep his habit secret from his wife, Kelly. “I took my family and friends down on this journey with me. I am so lucky that Kelly has stuck with me. I’m not sure if I would have.”

While he feels that the whole football establishment, including some of its biggest names, is in denial about the damage done by its links with gambling, he reserves particular anger for Everton.

“My beloved club has always prided itself on being a ‘people’s club’, rooted in its community, supporting local people when they have problems. What it is doing now goes completely against that. It’s a major step in the wrong direction when they could have taken a stance about the harm that they know gambling can do”.

The same words, he suggests, might be applied to the Government if it does, as reported, change its mind on banning football shirt sponsorship.

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