Will Halstead on a recent The Big Step walk from Manchester to Liverpool. Image: Supplied
Watch a Premier League match these days and it’s impossible to avoid the tight-knit relationships between football and gambling advertising. Whether it’s on the front of shirts, pitch-side hoardings, or “official partnerships”, clubs are making money from pushing their fans towards betting.
Boris Johnson’s government promised a review in his 2019 manifesto which, like so many things, never became reality. Now a group of fans are pushing back.
“Every day delayed is another person dead because of gambling,” says James Grimes, a recovering gambling addict. Grimes leads a group of football fans – fellow recovering addicts and those with experiences of the harm it can cause – trying to get betting sponsorship kicked out of football, under the banner of The Big Step.
“The government will have it on their conscience that however many times they’re delaying this will result in hundreds if not thousands of needless deaths,” says Grimes.
“These reforms that we’re proposing will, I have no doubt, save lives.”
Far from being one of those things that is so pervasive it becomes invisible, the presence of gambling adverts in football is becoming ever-more jarring. Eight of the Premier League’s 20 teams have betting sponsors on the front of their shirts. And the leagues below that are all officially prefixed as the “Sky Bet” Championship, League One, and League Two.
In stadiums and on TVs, the ads are plastered everywhere. One recent match saw a three-deep stack of hoardings, all bearing the same gambling advert. Betway, the sponsor of West Ham, was last week fined £400,000 for advertising on the children’s section of the club’s website with a colouring-in page including a direct link to bet.
For football fans, it can ruin not just their enjoyment of the game but in some cases their lives. Studies show that somewhere between 4 per cent and 11 per cent of suicides in the UK are gambling related and between 340,000 and 1.4 million adults in the UK are classed as ‘problem gamblers’, including 55,000 11-16-year-olds.
In fact, some forms of betting are more addictive than heroin and tobacco, while a quarter of people who gamble will suffer from what is termed as “significant harm”.
The Big Step, run by Grimes, focuses on working with clubs and the government in a bid to push change while leading walks for its members, stopping at clubs. It recently sponsored a match at National League South side Dulwich Hamlet and counts Luton Town and Partick Thistle among more than 30 clubs supporting it.
Growing up as a Barnsley fan living in Huddersfield, Will Halstead was obsessed with football, holding a season ticket and collecting sticker albums. But when he got to 18 and started working as an accountant he followed the lead of others in his office and started betting.
What began as a £1 accumulator grew quickly. His regular stake increased to £5. When he won £170 off a £5 bet, he was hooked.
“Within the first year I was already waiting for my pay to come in at midnight so I could gamble. It wasn’t long before it was all going on gambling before I’d had the chance to pay the bills or anything. It happened really quickly,” he says.
“My love of football is a bit tainted by the gambling sponsorship which is everywhere. Seeing that football clubs have sold themselves out to gambling sponsorship and they don’t seem to care, the majority of them.”
He gambled for 12 years before seeking help. “By the end I was exhausted by everything. It wasn’t rock bottom, it was just out of sheer exhaustion,” he says. “I’d had plenty of times where I was considering doing awful things to myself.
“I was just a hollow form of who I used to be.”
A ban is now inevitable, he believes, and thinks betting ads will go the same way as tobacco advertising in sports. The days of Marlboro’s logo plastered over Ferrari’s F1 cars are long behind us.
“I just wish football clubs would do the right thing and ditch it before it’s forced upon them. It will be forced upon them, it’s not going to carry on. It’s destroying lives and it’s going to change – it’s just when,” he says.
The Big Step has come a long way since its first event in June 2019. At first it focused on trying to get clubs to take small steps. That changed after a meeting Grimes had with the “head of community” at a Premier League club.
“I was saying we could work with you to do signposting and support and awareness raising, and we would want you to evaluate this deal with a gambling company. He genuinely told me to keep my voice down because the room next door was the commercial director,” Grimes said.
“He was like: ‘Your best chance of working with football clubs is to not rock the boat with gambling companies, and to talk about awareness, education, and signposting’.”
“It was at that moment I thought ‘fuck this’. These gambling companies have got such a stranglehold that well-meaning people in football clubs can’t even signpost towards addiction treatment.”
In the intervening years, Grimes’s efforts have changed to trying to get gambling ads kicked out of football all together.
Along the way there have been small wins. Clubs can’t directly promote gambling on social media and famous current footballers can’t appear in TV ads for gambling.
But on the biggest prize, it looked like progress might be made this year, with the government’s long-promised gambling white paper promising reforms including a review of betting sponsorship in sports. It was announced in December 2020 but was delayed multiple times, ultimately being put off until Liz Truss took office. Grimes fears Truss will axe it.
“She’s very about self regulation and stripping away regulation,” he says. He doubts that gambling is very high on her agenda.
Part of the campaign’s strength, Grimes says, comes from being made up of people all too aware of the harm it can have: “We have an undeniable truth. Nobody can rewrite our stories for us, nobody can tell us that gambling advertising wasn’t harmful.”
With the delay to the gambling white paper, there’s a question of what shape reforms will take. In the summer there was talk of clubs voluntarily “phasing out” sponsorship, in an attempt to avoid government intervention.
“My instinctive answer is I don’t care who makes it happen, as long as we get a situation where there’s no gambling advertising at any football match in this country,” Grimes says, but concludes that he prefers legislation as it leaves less room for clubs to wriggle around it.
“One government one day, be it this one or not, will put restrictions on gambling advertising and gambling advertising in football.”