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Sports Betting in English Football

by Glenn Baird - July 18, 2017

After a series of high profile betting scandals involving football players in the UK, the Football Association announced last month that they would be terminating their sponsorship deal with Ladbrokes. The deal, which was worth a reported £4 million a year , was entering the second-year of a four-year contract. The decision to end their association with the betting giant and has left the FA looking for new sponsorship before the start of the new season in August.

The decision was made following a three-month review into the FA’s association with betting companies. Criticism of the FA’s contract with Ladbrokes was brought to the fore during a case involving ex Burnley midfielder Joey Barton, who was banned from playing football for 18 months after he was found guilty of betting on football matches and his own transfer.

Chief executive of the FA, Martin Glenn, stated: “We would like to thank Ladbrokes for both being a valued partner over the last year and for their professionalism and understanding about our change of policy around gambling.”

The termination of the contract between the FA and Ladbrokes was inevitable, so inevitable that it should never have been sealed in the first place. If the FA are going to work closely with betting companies to enforce strict penalties on footballers found gambling on the sport then there cannot be a conflict of interest between the regulatory body and one of the world’s largest betting companies.

Barton himself stated before the deal was terminated that:

“What are the FA going to do, march into Ladbrokes and say: ‘Show us everyone who’s had a bet on this game?’ Ladbrokes are going to say: ‘Eff off, we pay you £10m a year [sic], keep your mouth shut.’ Do the FA not understand that’s hush money? Because if they don’t do it to Ladbrokes, they can’t do it to Betfair, Paddy Power, William Hill.

“They’ve given me such a harsh sentence because they want to maintain to the world, to the people who buy TV rights, that this is a very high-integrity game here. People who work for betting companies have told me that’s the key issue. The FA have no actual interest in [tackling] betting. And they can’t solve the problem, especially when they’ve got Ladbrokes as a partner. Because the players are going: ‘I’m not doing anything wrong.’”
Despite this effort to distance football in England from sports gambling there are those who believe that this is merely a token gesture, a PR stunt designed to create the impression that the FA are tackling the problem.

One look at the newly released football strips for the upcoming Premier League season tells you everything you need to know about the influence of gaming companies in English football. Of the league’s twenty teams, ten of them have kits sponsored by gaming companies. Eight of those have sports betting operators as their main kit sponsor whilst Watford have taken advantage of new sponsorship laws to have the first gaming company represented on the sleeve of their new shirt. That leaves nine out of the twenty teams in the Premier League with a potential conflict of interest, as their cooperation in investigations may be less than forthcoming.

Interestingly enough, none of aforementioned nine teams finished in last year’s coveted top six, with the big hitters all ensuring lucrative deals with big names like Emirates or Chevrolet. This can only mean that the money being secured from deals with gambling operators is a notch down from the money that Manchester Unt and Arsenal are earning in their deals, but still the best out there for teams that lack the branding profile of Chelsea or Liverpool.

If the money is better than any other offers out there, teams are not going to take the moral high ground and turn down lucrative deals from gambling companies. If the FA really does want to make a difference and not just protect itself then it should be trying to ensure that these deals cannot take place so that there is no conflict of interest anywhere in the sport.

Compared to other leading European football leagues the Premier League stands out the biggest billboard for gambling operators to emblazon their brand in the minds of thousands of fans every week. In Spain’s top flight only Malaga have a gambling outlet as their main sponsor. In the French Ligue 1 Lille are sponsored by a hotel and casino company. In the German Bundesliga only Hertha Berlin follow that trend and in Italy’s Serie A there are currently no teams that are sponsored by any sort of gambling outlet. This could change as there are still deals to be negotiated before the start of the football season in Europe but even if it does it’s unlikely that the numbers added up from all the top flight European leagues will amount to even half of those that we’ve seen in England.

The reason for this is obvious. Sports betting is huge in the UK. For a lot of football fans, watching the results of a well-researched accumulator trickle in over the course of a Saturday afternoon is as integral as the cans of lager that accompany it. The companies are there and are willing to spend the money because there is a lot of money to be made, more so than in any other European country. This is so much a part of British culture that many of the players involved find it difficult to adjust to the laws of the game designed to discourage them from gambling on football. The culture will not change and for many footballers it is a culture that they have either grown up with or find themselves drawn into.

Whether playing in the lower leagues or in the Premier League, temptation will always be there for footballers. It could be an innocent temptation, to add some spice to a weekend of football that they have no part to play in. However, it could also be a temptation to make some easy money and consciously or subconsciously play a part in altering the outcome or a small element of a football match.

The only factor that really matters in all of this is that footballers cannot be allowed to wager on football. There’s no wiggle room. It simply cannot be allowed to happen. This should be the FA’s priority and they should be doing everything they can to ensure it.

Extensive bans for any footballer caught gambling on football matches is the way forward. The ban levelled at Barton is going to make most footballers thing twice before they gamble on their careers. However, many would argue that the FA could still be doing more. As long as football is making money from sports betting there will always be a mixed message and a conflict of interest within the sport.