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Despite new FA stance, clubs' seedy relationship with gambling companies as strong as ever

As the governing body rows back, clubs continue to roll around in a cesspit of sponsorship arrangements, regardless of the consequences.

Image: Tony Marshall

IT WAS FOUR years ago when the former Bolton striker Kevin Davies wrote about a team-mate who was checking his phone in the toilet during half-time of a league game because he had £20,000 resting on the result of a horse race.

It’s also four years since Keith Gillespie revealed he lost £62,000 during a 48-hour gambling spree.

It’s seven years since Matthew Etherington admitted to having gambled his weekly wage of £20,000 between getting on and stepping off the team bus before a game.

And still, despite the epidemic, it’s only now that the FA have decided to take action and step away from their own sponsorship deal with Ladbrokes, which was worth £4m per year.

But, as embarrassing as it is that the governing body for football in England has taken so long to make a stand, at least they have done.

In complete contrast, clubs continue to treat partnerships with gambling companies as a lucrative bit of business, regardless of the signal it sends.

The three players mentioned above – Davies, Gillespie and Etherington – played for (at their height) Bolton, Newcastle, Stoke City and West Ham.

The irony is that all four of those clubs count on a gambling company as their main shirt sponsor, despite their former employees’ well-documented battle with gambling addiction.

It was only earlier this month that Bolton announced Betfred as their new partner. Stoke had little issue in rechristening the Brittania Stadium when they aligned themselves with Bet365. West Ham’s deal with Betway is the biggest deal in the club’s history.

And, of course, Newcastle have never really been ones for integrity when it comes to sponsorship.

Their £24m three-year deal with Fun88 – a Chinese-based online gaming company that specialises in live casinos and sports betting – is the most lucrative in the club’s history, eclipsing the previous arrangement with payday lender (essentially legal loan sharks) Wonga.

That deal with Wonga was incredibly controversial.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Newcastle United v Southampton - St James' Park Source: Richard Sellers

The company was forced to remove its logo from children’s replica kits while striker Papiss Cisse refused to wear anything bearing the Wonga name because it contravened his Muslim faith and his personal beliefs. It led to him being left behind as Newcastle went on a summer tour in 2013. But, the entire thing backfired on Cisse. The deal had already been in place for a year, there were photographs of him gambling at a casino and other Muslims at the club – Moussa Sissoko, Hatem Ben Arfa, the late Cheik Tioté and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa – had no issue with Wonga’s sponsorship.

Newcastle learned their lesson. No more payday lenders on the front of their shirts. They’d play it safe with Fun88 instead. No moral grandstanding when it comes to ‘online gaming companies’, you see.

There was a delicious irony too when Joey Barton was recently slapped with an 18-month ban for betting offences.

Barton was with Burnley at the time of the suspension – a club sponsored by Dafabet. Before that, he was with Glasgow Rangers (where he served a one-game ban for betting practices), whose main sponsor is 32Red – an online casino company. The club also play in the Ladbrokes Premiership and compete for the William Hill Scottish Cup.

Liverpool v Burnley - Premier League - Anfield Source: Peter Byrne

Barton, in a well-crafted statement after his sentence had been handed-down, said the following:

If the FA is truly serious about tackling the culture of gambling in football, it needs to look at its own dependence on the gambling companies, their role in football and in sports broadcasting, rather than just blaming the players who place a bet.”

We now live in an age where the pay-per-view TV channels that show live football consistently encourages those watching to place bets on the game. And not just in advance of it. Before, during and after.

We now live in an age where entire leagues (Skybet Championship, Skybet League One, Skybet League Two, Ladbrokes Premiership) are backed by gambling companies.

We now live in an age where it’s commonplace for clubs to have ‘official betting partners’. William Hill is in bed with three teams: Chelsea, Tottenham and Everton. Manchester United even have an ‘Official Casino Resort partner’. That’s Donaco, in case you’re wondering.

And yet, when footballers gamble irresponsibly or make a mis-step or risk their fortunes on the outcome of a horse race, they get the punishment, the shame and the public condemnation.

Derby County v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship - iPro Stadium Source: Mike Egerton

Their employers, knee-deep in responsibility, dust themselves down and move onto the next commercial deal.

Of course, the immediate counter-argument is that with some self-control and self-awareness, players wouldn’t get themselves in such a mess.

But there is a duty of care that needs to exist in any workplace. It’s like the companies that supply fruit for employees or offer a staff discount when you join the gym downstairs. It’s a way of encouraging wellness, however small the gesture.

For football clubs, they hide behind the massive wages they pay and say, ‘Don’t we do enough for you?’ Because, ultimately, the money remains the motivator. It’s why key decisions are made.

But, when the governing body overseeing those clubs makes a stand, it leads to inevitable questions. Will gambling companies be prohibited from having sponsorship arrangements with clubs? If not, why? Why would the FA not enforce a policy? And what does it say about clubs if they continue to merely look the other way while their own players struggle under the weight of something they’re indirectly responsible for?

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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