When I asked a team of pollsters and focus groups specialists, who’d been going round the country recently, what people thought of advertising, the reply from one veteran top political numbers man was: “They just find it annoying”. I then followed up and said: “Gambling advertising in particular?” He replied: “No. All advertising”.
Prohibitionists from the anti-gambling lobby have similarly been touring the country in a bus calling for the complete ban on all gambling advertising. They claim that all advertising leads to harm – including to children – so given the seriousness of this allegation, this warrants closer inspection.
Advertising and sports sponsorship is clearly something the Government is looking at as part of its Gambling Review. We are reassured that ministers have repeatedly pledged to take “an evidence-based approach”.
Ministers are equally right when they say that they must strike the right balance between doing everything they can to protect the vulnerable, whilst not spoiling the enjoyment of the vast majority of the millions of people who choose to enjoy an occasional flutter – whether that’s on sports or bingo or other gaming – and people who do so safely and responsibly as part of their leisure time.
And as we have stressed repeatedly, we need to do everything we can to stop gamblers drifting off to the unsafe, unregulated black market online.
So what about the evidence? In a written parliamentary answer, DCMS minister John Whittingdale – the man leading the Government’s Gambling Review – pointed to an academic study into the link between advertising and betting and said “it did not establish a causal link between exposure to advertising and the development of problem gambling”.
But, understandably, the relationship between football and gambling is particularly in the spotlight given the close relationship between betting and football, dating back more than 100 years through the football pools.
Amid suggestions that support for football from betting has led to a rise in problem gambling, the English Football League (EFL) asked Professor Ian McHale of the University of Liverpool to carry out his own research. His study concluded there was no evidence that sponsorship of clubs or leagues influenced participation in betting.
Yet the sponsorship of football undoubtedly influences the survival of football. Today the regulated U.K. betting industry provides millions of pounds to the national game, including £40m to the EFL and its clubs. This is money for lower league football – grassroots not galácticos. And this investment has been especially important after the pandemic, given the perilous state of football finances.
As EFL chairman Rick Parry wrote recently: “It is no overstatement to say that the ongoing support of sponsors and partners has been integral to many clubs’ survival this year more than ever”.
And it’s not just football that relies on the support our industry provides. Horseracing receives £350m a year through sponsorship, media rights and the betting levy. If you were to ban betting advertising on TV it could, for example, be the end of ITV Racing, which is free to view and much-loved by millions.
Similarly, what would happen to Rugby League’s Challenge Cup, including the Women’s Challenge Cup and the Wheelchair Challenge Cup, without BetFred’s sponsorship? When I asked a senior figure in Rugby League if there was any ready and willing alternative source of funding, the answer was no (“and I’m happy to sit down with any MP and explain that,” he added). The same is the case for other sports, particularly much-loved working class sports like darts and snooker.
Of course, betting advertising and sponsorship must rightly comply with very strict guidelines – such as a ban on betting logos on kids’ football kits. At the same time, BGC members voluntarily ensure that 20 per cent of TV and radio ads are now exclusively safer gambling messages. This means advertising safer gambling tools like taking time out or setting deposit limits. It also means signposting help to those who need it. Are we really going to ban that?
So again, what’s the evidence about what is really happening? According to a recent report by the independent regulator, the Gambling Commission, the proportion of gamblers assessed as being at medium risk of harm has actually halved from 1.4 per cent to 0.7 per cent since the end of last year. Overall, the regulator found that the rate of problem gambling in the UK is 0.4 per cent, a figure which has remained stable for the past two decades.
But what’s the truth about young people and gambling? It has been (outrageously) suggested by prohibitionists that the regulated industry tries to exploit football’s popularity to encourage under-18s to gamble. According to the Gambling Commission, the main types of gambling by 11 to 16-year-olds are private bets (kids betting amongst themselves), scratchcards, fruit machines and playing cards with friends. Whilst this is undoubtedly an issue, this is not children induced by advertising betting on football with regulated operators as some campaigners seem to suggest.
The regulator also found that the number of young people who admitted to gambling in the previous week actually fell by more than half from 23 per cent in 2011 to 11 per cent in 2019.
I certainly recognise that there must be no complacency from the industry, that many people do have genuine and sincere concerns, and that there is still much more work for us all to do. Problem gambling may be low, but one problem gambler is still one too many. That’s why the BGC has been determined to drive change, raise standards and promote safer gambling.
For instance, under a code of conduct we introduced earlier this year, calls to action or links to gambling websites are no longer allowed on organic posts on the social media channels of football clubs. This followed concerns that the posts could be used to get round strict measures which are already in place to prevent under-18s from seeing betting adverts online. We have also welcomed recent announcements by social media companies on allowing customers to opt out of gambling advertising.
In 2019, our members brought in the whistle-to-whistle ban on TV betting commercials from five minutes before a match starts until five minutes after it ends, before the 9pm watershed. This has led to a fall of 97 per cent in the number of such ads seen by children at that time.
The positive impact was shown during football’s recent European Championships, when the number of betting commercials shown on ITV fell by more than half compared with the World Cup in 2018.
Once again, Rick Parry from the EFL hit the nail on the head when he said: “We know from history that prohibition does not work. When it comes to gambling, we instead should be looking at continually improving regulation, developing advertising standards and reviewing partnership models as opposed to imposing blanket bans on associations between football and the gambling sector.” He’s right.
Of course anti-gambling prohibitionists will keep doing what they do – calling for stuff, like all advertising, to be prohibited. And, yes, advertising may be occasionally annoying. But to say gambling advertising equals harm or is the cause behind problem gambling is just not true.
Michael Dugher is CEO of the standards body the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) and is a former Shadow Secretary of State for DCMS
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