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Should betting advertising be banned in the UK?

As the teams, players and fans get ready for a new season of Premier League football, we look at whether it’s time to pull down the shutters on gambling advertising.

Full disclosure before getting underway: I’ve worked with most bookmakers in previous roles. From the giant, high-profile brands to the ‘Random-Three-Number Bets’ of this world. I’m also a serial punter and have always enjoyed a flutter. This article isn’t designed to shame anyone who does work in that industry, but to look at the implications of the close links between betting and sport and examine whether this relationship can continue in its current form.

Background

If you watched any Premier League game in the last five years or so, you’ll know how much exposure bookmakers get through football. From the players’ shirts being emblazoned with Chinese writing to Ray Winstone’s dismembered head popping up in the half-time break. Why? The answer is obvious - it’s big business. It’s estimated that £1.5bn is contributed to the football industry from betting companies.

A clear problem

But alongside the money that gambling provides is a huge societal issue. It’s thought that there are in the region of 450,000 problem gamblers in the UK, which is around the same amount as those who watched Cardiff v Burnley this season on TV.

In June, the NHS launched a clinic for children with gambling problems. Last year gaming companies paid out nearly £20m worth of fines for not protecting problem punters (and failing to prevent money laundering). The big five bookies have pledged to increase their contributions to relevant charities tenfold, so there is little debate over the fact that the nation has a problem. What there is more debate over is how to address the problem. Here we look at some of the potential fixes.

Self regulation

The major bookies have signed up for a ‘whistle-to-whistle’ ban on live sports (excluding horse/greyhound racing). This means that there will be no adverts for bookmakers for five minutes before and after the event. Naturally this feels like a step towards combating the problem. However, it could be said that both the broadcasters and major bookies are set to gain from this move. Sky, for example, could inflate the premium on buying into the pre-game slots. Likewise, with a fragmented marketplace, it would limit the number of places that smaller competitors could advertise.

Regulation on content

Comparisons can be drawn between other addictive products such as alcohol. The difference, for me, is that alcohol has been able to reposition itself as a lifestyle brand that can be enjoyed responsibly. While all gambling ads feature ‘please gamble responsibly’ the tone of many of the adverts has resulted in the normalisation of gambling. Prior to 2005, bookies were smoky, dark buildings tucked away on the high street.

The last decade has seen punting portrayed (in large) as an acceptable part of sport. When you’re able to pick your phone out of your pocket and bet on virtually anything, it has become an integral part of football. The urgency of the ‘in-play’ market encouraged fans to go and bet now, immediacy which alcohol companies can’t emulate.

The question is can you regulate bookies into something that reflects moderate use? Sky Bet has arguably taken the lead in promoting ‘cool-off’ periods that allow customers to take time out. Meanwhile, the ‘Bet Regret’ campaign from trade body GambleAware has aimed to show the consequences of betting to alleviate boredom.

Tightening digital rules

Offline media is only one part of the equation. Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson has suggested that the 2005 Gambling Act is not fit and proper for the digital age. He has also proposed that a ban should be put in place to prevent customers from using credit cards and therefore not gambling money they don’t have. Watson suggests that a ‘cultural change’ needs to happen in order for gambling to become truly responsible. Regulating that in traditional media is one thing but online is another ball park all together.

Blanket ban

Could it be, that the answer is to shut-down the advertising outlets completely? When New Labour was elected in 1997, part of the manifesto was a ban on cigarette advertising (which was eventually fully implemented in 2003). The same government introduced deregulation to the gambling industry in 2005 and the parallels between the two industries is clear. But, is the answer to go down the same route and stop bookies from further swamping the sports space?

The parallels between smoking and gambling continue when we look at the sponsorship space. Cigarette brands were the mainstay of sport, in particular Formula 1 for many years. Bookies have become the 21st century equivalent, particularly in the Premier League, where only one of the 2018/19 teams (Brighton) didn’t have a bookie partner.

Smoking regulation got even tighter, including a ban in public places and standardisation of packaging. All of which has resulted in continued decline in the number of smokers in England. An all-time low of 14.4% of the population smoke, down over 5% from 2011. The increased awareness of the danger, the lack of visibility and the illegality of advertising has put smoking into what Public Health England describes as ‘terminal decline.’ The younger generations are growing up aware of the dangers and don’t see smoking as glamourous, whereas the exposure to bookies has resulted in an increased problem among young people. Would following this blueprint for betting result in the same outcome?

It’s certainly not unthinkable. The problem wasn’t there before the deregulation made it easy to advertise, treating gambling in the same way as smoking could well result in increased health benefits. However, despite most of the major bookmakers being based in tax efficient locations such as Gibraltar, Israel or Malta, the gambling industry contributed £2.8 bn to the public purse in 2017. Contrast this with the £1.2bn that Gamble Aware claim the industry is costing the UK and the issues becomes trickier yet again.

There’s no simple answer, but Britain’s relationship with bookies is likely to come under more scrutiny. And if tougher regulation does come into place, then the sponsorship industry will need to ready itself for attracting brands away from the gaming sector. How it does that is another issue for another time.

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