A Big Gamble

Bookmakers are pumping ever more cash into club sponsorship. Yet with gambling addiction on the rise and punts galore in the dressing room, something may have to give.

By Andy RossFeatured in Nutmeg 13 available here

For the fifth successive season the top four leagues in the country will be sponsored by Ladbrokes, while the two major cups also feature a bookmaker as their title sponsor. Three of the 12 top flight sides are sponsored by gambling firms and the Main Stand at the National Stadium has been the William Hill South Stand since 2016. Attending or watching a football match in Scotland, there is next to no chance that you could avoid the presence of gambling.

There are undoubtedly financial benefits to the Scottish game courtesy of these deals and SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster has been keen to stress the significance of Ladbrokes’ sponsorship of the four professional leagues in Scotland. Speaking as the bookmaker extended their sponsorship deal, Doncaster said: “We have enjoyed a superb partnership since they first came on board in 2015, and are confident that will continue and flourish until 2020 and hopefully beyond.

“We are also aware of our social responsibilities as a senior professional league in Scotland and will continue to promote a message of responsible gambling in conjunction with Ladbrokes.”

 At a time when Scottish football looks on with a degree of envy as the game down south reaps the rewards of astronomical sponsorship deals, some would argue it would be nonsensical to turn down a deal that will benefit all 42 sides and Scottish football as a whole. Many football fans will bet on a big match or place a weekly coupon, indeed many will see it as part of the culture, something they have done for many years. However, for others it runs much deeper, an addiction that can have catastrophic effects.

Former Motherwell and Hearts winger Kevin Twaddle admits his gambling addiction took him to the brink of suicide. Twaddle shared his journey into the gambling abyss in his book Life on the Line and has spoken on behalf of the Scottish PFA to 40 of the 42 SPFL clubs about the dangers associated with gambling.

“Football is a gambling industry now and is no longer the beautiful game,” he explained. “I used to do talks with the PFA, though that doesn’t happen anymore. If you are caught inside the game having a bet on any football it’s a sackable offence, though I would guarantee if you were banning all players in the SPFL who have a bet, then you would have no football – almost everybody does it.”

Twaddle has been encouraged by a shift in understanding of mental health issues not just within football, but across society as a whole. The message that “it’s OK not to be OK” continues to be shared far and wide, though according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, problem gamblers are more likely than others to suffer from low self-esteem, develop stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression, have poor sleep and appetite and to develop a substance misuse problem.

“When you are in the throes of betting, you will do absolutely anything for it, you don’t see any consequences and your morals go out the window,” Twaddle added. “It’s the worst hidden illness. Football is riddled with players being investigated for things they shouldn’t be doing – it’s unbelievable.

“The big question is what do you do if you keep accepting money from gambling companies? It’s constant in football. When you’re a compulsive gambler you go through so many emotions that nobody will understand. You go through so many highs and lows, no wonder you end up with depression and anxiety.

“I’ve had three close friends in the last 18 months who have committed suicide through gambling. When I was at Motherwell I was seeing the club doctor for glandular fever, but also for depression as well. Who is at fault and who is to blame? The players pay money to the PFA but they are doing fuck all about it. What can they do? All their wages are being paid through gambling companies and it’s the same for the hierarchy in the game.”

Twaddle’s take on the gambling epidemic within Scottish football may seem extreme though you don’t have to look far for examples of individuals who have been punished for breaking the game’s strict gambling laws. In 2017, Cowdenbeath defender Dean Brett was sacked by the Central Park club. It was found he had placed 2,787 bets, with eight of those against his own team – five involving matches in which he played. Brett now turns out for Bonnyrigg Rose after rediscovering his love for the game that turned its back on him.

“There wasn’t much support offered to me at all, Cowdenbeath met with me a few times but it’s probably all on you to turn things around,” Brett recalled. “The SFA banned me and Cowdenbeath then terminated my contact, but neither helped with the problem. I wouldn’t say there’s support through the game, only from groups which are away from football. I’d say gambling talk is definitely common in changing rooms – both teams I’ve played for have been the same so I can’t imagine many other teams are much different.

“I feel that if the authorities are going to be strict about gambling within the game then they can’t display gambling logos on their strips and name cup competitions after bookmakers. They benefit from bookmakers’ cash but ban players for gambling – it’s a bit hypocritical.

“I’m not sure earning a lower wage makes you bet more but definitely the lower the level you go you’ll probably have a better idea on who will win matches compared to the bookies – it probably does make you bet more if you know teams and players.”

 Bookmakers offer almost 100 markets available for most senior matches in the UK. The information is re-laid by “data scouts” who communicate via handheld devices or through commentating on the match down the phone. This is the information you will see on the digital pitch on most live betting sites, displaying updates such as home dangerous attack, home corner, away throw-in, etc.

Genius Sports Group has the exclusive rights to collect, license and distribute live data from SPFL fixtures to sports betting operators globally. Despite the Genius deal giving them exclusivity and access to Scottish senior matches, a number of unlicensed organisations also operates at SPFL games, reserve matches and women’s matches across the country. I spoke to a data scout who worked for one of the unlicensed data providers for eight months after taking up the role early last year. He explained the difficulties of working in such a role, both in carrying out the job and his struggles with expenses, financial penalties for errors and payment of wages.

“The job was sold to me as quite glamorous; I was excited to get going – though the reality was so much different from what I anticipated,” the former scout recounted. “My first game was a Scottish Premiership fixture and I was advised I would be paid a match fee of £55. It cost me £28 to pay into the match and £20 on petrol. Expenses aren’t covered so I was essentially paid £7 for an afternoon’s work. Throughout the game I was on the phone to a call centre agent, quite often they would swap between agents during the games and given I was receiving the call from Austria there was a language barrier.

“That first match went smoothly enough, though it wasn’t always the case. I made a mistake in a reserve game and was deducted half of my match fee – I tried to appeal as it was simply a case of the agent not picking up my instruction, but that appeal was rejected.

“In my first few months I did loads of games across the leagues as well as reserve and women’s games. They asked me to register for a Skrill account, so they could pay me at the end of the month – it all felt underhand and it was an absolute nightmare trying to access my wages.

“The problems just kept coming up. I was thrown out of games at three different stadiums – it was incredibly embarrassing. The licence holder was conducting their own checks to ensure that nobody was illegally collecting data at fixtures and I was caught out. My final dismissal came at McDiarmid Park and that was the tipping point for me. The job felt murky – I wasn’t enjoying covering matches and the pay was shocking.”

Scottish Women’s Football (SWF) and its chair Vivienne MacLaren have taken a strong stance on both alcohol and gambling sponsorship with the women’s game in Scotland. Both types of advertising are banned, something MacLaren believes will help enhance the family feel and demonstrates the social conscience of women’s football.

“I’ve not got an issue with alcohol or gambling sponsorship within the men’s game and I understand the importance too,” she explained. “I understand that gambling companies and to a lesser extent alcohol brands are really the only ones with money to put into the game, especially in Scotland.

“If you don’t have those investments, you don’t have clubs that are solvent in many regards – I understand it, but we need to do a hell of a lot more to deal with the fallout that comes with this.

“If you are a gambling addict, the slightest reminder of a brand for that person is absolutely a serious issue and we need to think more about these people. It’s a minority, but for that minority it’s a horrific, horrific thing – like alcohol addiction, gambling addiction is an illness.

“We have been approached by gambling and alcohol firms in the past, but given the fact that over 80 per cent of our registered players are under the age of 18, it would be an insane and highly irresponsible move to allow these firms to be part of our game. We want to position the women’s game in Scotland to be a clean brand because in the long term that attracts a better calibre of partner. We don’t want our partners to write a cheque and walk away. We work closely with our partners and are communicating with them every few days.

“It’s important that young girls and boys are motivated by the role models they see within the game, to be motivated by healthy living, taking part in physical education, being fit, consuming a healthy diet and having a healthy mind – good mental health is so important, especially in young girls as they are growing up. I don’t think you can do that while promoting alcohol and gambling companies – for me that’s cheating a bit.”

Despite taking a strong stance on gambling sponsorship within the game, SWPL1 and SWPL2 matches are still regularly available for in-play betting. The recent SWPL1 fixture between Hibernian and Motherwell had over 80 markets available to bet on. MacLaren admits this is a source of major concern in the women’s game and something they are desperate to eradicate.

“We really need to clamp down on the scouts attending these games and look at how to prevent them attending – we need to have rules in place and implement them,” she said. “It concerns me and without an increased staffing structure it can be very difficult to control. Personally I’ve ejected data scouts from matches before. As clubs commit money to having full-time players who are paid, you will see much more of a focus on a transition towards more professional contracts. The big thing for me is generating even more income into the game so we can support the clubs in building a much more professional focus.

“If we are able to fund the clubs more, then we can potentially have it as part of their criteria as SWPL members that they have someone to eject these people from the grounds. There are some players being paid £20 a week to play SWPL football and then you’ve got someone potentially being paid ten times as much to provide data from our matches – we have banned gambling advertising from our game and yet they are trying to make money out of it. It’s a joke and we can’t allow it to continue to happen.”

 While the women’s game has rejected sponsorship from gambling companies, in the men’s game, Motherwell are one of the teams in the top flight who continue to reap the benefits of sponsorship. The Fir Park club have recently announced the biggest sponsorship deal in the club’s history with Paddy Power coming on board as their main sponsor.

Motherwell are the first Scottish team to take part in the betting firm’s “Save Our Shirt” campaign, dedicated to removing sponsor logos from the front of jerseys. The bookmaker argues that their promotion respects that some things in football are sacred and having a shirt that doesn’t resemble a billboard is a big part of that – the aim of “Save Our Shirt” is to give the shirt back to the fans.

Paddy Power opting not to display their logo on it has certainly added to a more aesthetically pleasing product, though they have revelled in the attention from their latest marketing campaign. Huddersfield Town were the first team to announce a partnership with the bookmaker one week before Motherwell unveiled their sponsorship deal. It all began with a diagonal Paddy Power sash across Town’s traditional blue and white vertical stripes on their kit. The team even took to the field for a friendly against Rochdale wearing the shirt which had been widely described as “one of the worst ever”.

Days later and the shirt was revealed as a fake and that instead Paddy Power would be “unsponsoring” Huddersfield. Surely there’s never been such hysteria around a shirt launch? Paddy Power had got the football world talking about the fact they weren’t featuring on the Huddersfield Town shirt – for the Irish bookmaker it was well and truly job done

Motherwell communications manager Grant Russell believes the Steelmen attracting a company like Paddy Power is a real coup for the club and emphasises the financial benefits attached to such a deal.

“To be able as a club to attract a blue chip, huge national company like Paddy Power maybe shows everyone that we’re getting recognised for everything that we do – the fan ownership, the way we portray ourselves, stories that we tell right down to the way we play on the pitch and the young talent coming through,” he said. “A company like Paddy Power could have had their pick of hundreds of clubs, but they came to us. That shouldn’t be underestimated and it doesn’t happen often. It’s a massively positive deal for the club in a financial sense and we’ll have a bit of fun with it too. Paddy Power are well known for their irreverent tone and it will allow us to push the boundaries a bit.”

While keen to talk up the positives of the club’s biggest ever sponsorship deal, Russell wants to ensure that Motherwell don’t compromise their position as a socially responsible club with the best interests of their supporters and the local community at the root of everything they do.

“We are delighted to be working with Paddy Power; we aren’t going to shy away from that [issue]. I think every gambling company recognises the need to be promoting responsible gambling and we will work with them in doing that.” “It’s not an onus on the club to promote responsible gambling, it’s second nature. It’s in this club’s DNA to look after each other. If someone is experiencing hard times or having trouble, we’re here as the constant to help you. That’s what our community is, that is what we are as a fan base and what we are as a club.

“We will constantly be looking to do our part, to be socially responsible and be able to help. Whether that is through running workshops or awareness campaigns, we will always do that for our supporter base. That will always be what Motherwell Football Club does. We will push these messages 100 per cent in all of these factors that affect people’s lives in a negative sense.”

It’s a strong message from Motherwell, who have often been at the forefront of promoting serious issues in society. Though on the back of their receiving a record sponsorship deal from a bookmaker, some people will surely point to a conflict of interest.

The same accusations could be aimed at the wider Scottish game, with all 42 teams in the SPFL benefitting from the sponsorship of gambling firms. Dean Brett and Kevin Twaddle have both highlighted a lack of support for problem gamblers within the game, while suggesting that the authorities aren’t in a position to deal with the issue given the vast sums of money being injected into Scottish football by the gambling industry.

In rejecting gambling sponsorship, the SWF have taken a brave step and shown that an injection of money from the industry isn’t pivotal to survival, though with no full-time sides in Scotland, many players on low or no wages and an overwhelming number of volunteers across the women’s game – is this being done at the cost of progression?

The debate on gambling within Scottish football will continue to divide opinion. For many the sponsorship money invested by bookmakers is essential to the financial security of the game; but with problem gambling on the rise, the link to mental health issues and suggestions of a gambling culture within dressing rooms, it seems like a tipping point may be reached in the near future.