The Big Step: How football is dealing with its gambling habit

As Paul Merson stood on the golf course in his documentary Football, Gambling and Me, fighting back tears as he confessed that his compulsion to gamble remains an ever-present threat in his life, the moment felt overdue.

For so long football’s relationship with its favourite partner industry has evaded real scrutiny, but here it was, being dragged kicking and screaming into the public consciousness.

The programme, aired by the BBC, was an avalanche of statistics and science, brain scans and barely believable data. Yet it was the image of its central protagonist struggling to get his words out at the apparent inescapability of his demon that would have struck the greatest chord with viewers.

Slowly, football is facing up to betting.

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One group doing a lot of work on the issue is The Big Step. Founded by ex-gambling addict James Grimes, they work in partnership with an assortment of clubs – Forest Green, Dulwich Hamlet, Lewes FC, Tramere Rovers and others – to campaign against gambling advertisements in football.  Of course, all of these clubs refuse sponsorship deals from betting firms.

Teams lower down in the football league pyramid have been the focus up until now. As Tom Fleming, communications manager for the campaign, tells The Set Pieces, “I think the higher up you go, you’re going to get less success at the minute – take, say, West Ham who get £20-30 million a year from Betfred, that’s going to be much harder.”

There tends to be a few common denominators between the clubs currently on board with The Big Step. A relative ‘smallness’ that means they’d likely not be a huge target for the gambling industry regardless and an idiosyncratic, with a politically in-tune owner or fan base. These clubs are mostly one-offs, not the rule.

Take Forest Green. Dubbed ‘the world’s greenest football club’ by FIFA and ‘Soy of the Rovers’ in a Guardian article from earlier this year, their steadfast cultivation of a socially conscious, politically progressive identity makes them low hanging fruit for organisations like the Big Step.

Dulwich Hamlet, who play in the National League South and are building a fanatical local following, make a similar case study. Head down to Champion Hill on a Saturday afternoon and your eyes will be met by a sea of top-knotted IPA swiggers proudly waving their pink and blue scarves and making loose, wink and nudge allusions to communist struggle.

These clubs, havens of displaced hipsters wearied by over-corporatisation, make interesting models of what a socially progressive football club could look like, but aren’t likely to exemplify a way forward for football at large against gambling. Craft brewery or artisan marketplace sponsorships simply won’t cover the losses.

The hope for The Big Step is that the long-touted Government Gambling Review, announced at the tail end of 2020, could be about to force the issue.

Speculation is that betting shirt sponsorships, responsible for 2.5% of income for English clubs, will be outlawed – with clubs forced to envisage a post-gambling income future and make necessary arrangements.

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Against this backdrop, with the review now in its consultation phase, The Big Step has been able to enact a strategic shift in their operations.

“As a charity, before the consultation phase, we were doing events and campaigning the government to pressure them to make those changes in law,” Fleming continues. “Now that’s underway, our focus has shifted to approaching clubs directly and I think that could be quite powerful.”

It seems if this mini-movement in football is to snowball, it’ll need a heavy load of fiscal opportunism to supplement its central moral cause.

“Clubs could well get on board out of self interest if they know there’s say, a ban on shirt sponsorships coming” Tom affirms.

In September, Bolton Wanderers became the highest-profile club to completely sever ties with the gambling industry, with Chairman Neil Hart saying “we didn’t need to be a part of that.”

Hart’s choice of phrasing is telling here, ‘need’, rather than say, ‘want’, perhaps suggests a club whose business model is not predicated too strongly on gambling revenue and for whom doing the right thing morally goes happily in hand with doing the right thing financially.

That’s not a criticism, but it does mean other clubs might find it harder to take the same steps.

Bolton’s press officer, Pete Oliver, alluded to that. “We’re not in a position where we have any major current commercial deals with betting companies so it’s not an immediate financial hit for the club,” he says.

“The last thing we’d do is lecture other clubs, at the minute betting revenue is important to a lot of clubs so you have to respect their commercial operations.”

Indeed, besides the odd betting facilities and kiosks once dotted around the Trotters’ stadium concourse, Bolton had little to break away from. There’s probably even an element of moving fast to beat the rest of the market that Fleming suggested at play here. If the government betting review does push through the significant expected changes, then when others scramble to diversify their income streams, Bolton could be in a far more relaxed position.

Although Darragh MacAnthony, Peterborough’s chairman (picture below), dismissed Bolton’s decision as “virtue signalling”, it may be a far shrewder move. As Oliver says, “In theory we might be one step ahead of the game if those deals aren’t on the table for anybody and we’re all then shopping in the same market.”

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Of course, there’s a human face to all this. Lewis Carey, the goalkeeper for Lewes FC in the Isthmian League Premier Division is a recovering gambling addict – eight years without a bet and he has decided to go public with his story as part of an education programme his club are running in conjunction with Gambling with Lives, which The Big Step are a part of.

Carey began betting at 18 when he was on the books at Bristol City. It started with “a few quid here and there” and very soon became a life-consuming compulsion.

He would go missing for hours at a time, crafting false alibis as to his whereabouts and soon racked up tens of thousands of pounds of debt. What had begun as a distraction from the intense pressure of trying to make it in football soon overcame that ambition. He fell out of the professional game and started to have suicidal thoughts.

“At times I wasn’t even worried if I‘d won or lost. If I had a big win in one bookies, I’d have gone straight to another one and lost it all,” Carey explains. “In my two years of gambling every day, only one girl – who worked behind one of the tills in a Betfred – after I think I’d lost about £3000 in a few hours, asked me if I could afford this and I think I just went ‘yeah’ and that was it. No one else asked.”

Carey eventually went to an NHS gambling clinic and was supported by the PFA to pay for his psychotherapy treatments.

“Not everyone is lucky enough to have that luxury,” he admits. “There’s hundreds of players playing now that you wouldn’t think have a problem but will have a problem – you won’t notice it until it becomes very bad.”

His words aren’t even surprising. A House of Lords report from 2020 concluded there are currently 330,000 gambling addicts in the UK.

TSP asks Lewis if he feels gambling will ever truly relinquish its grip on football. His answer is somewhat jaundiced, “They plough so much money into football and ultimately football’s all about money.”

It seems inarguable that for further serious progress to be made, money will have to be stopped from entering the game legislatively. The hope for organisations like the Big Step is that with such a threat now on the horizon, clubs might jump before being pushed.

While the moralists may have got this race started, it may well be the opportunists picking up the baton in the coming months.

The Big Step: How football is dealing with its gambling habit
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