Footie To Divorce Gambling? Don’t Bet On It

(Image credit: The UK Gambling Commission)

So the governing body of England’s national game has called time on gambling. “No” you all gasp.  But “yes, really.”  A fairly quiet statement yesterday afternoon simply said that the lucrative deal with Ladbroke’s would be terminated early – in fact at the end of this month. The FA no longer wants that sort of relationship with bookmakers.

This comes about because new FA boss, Greg Clarke, said clearly that it was time to review the FA’s relationship not just with bookies but brewers as well.  That was at the beginning of May so the progress has been admirably brisk.

Co-incidentally (and just how much of a co-incidence is open to much speculation),  the review followed hard on the heels of an 18 month ban handed down by – yes, you guessed it  –  the FA to Burnley player Joey Barton who was judged to have breached anti-gambling rules. “Hypocrites” Barton retorted to his accusers, and that certainly touched a nerve.

The decision has been widely praised but almost equally doubted.  And you can see exactly how doubt can exist, because the relationship between gambling enterprises and footie is exceptionally wide-ranging and well entrenched: The two grounds I most regularly visit  (Parks Griffin and Goodison) would be unrecognisable stripped of gambling’s paraphernalia.  “Of the 20 Premier League sides, 11 have betting companies’ logos on their shirts while the three English Football League divisions are sponsored by Sky Bet.”

And that’s barely the tip of this iceberg, as Alex Hess’s expert and must-read article makes frighteningly clear. The gambling industry feeds intensely on football so if the latter is to break what seems to be the benevolent stranglehold of the former, it is indeed big news.

The FA has said the ban is on “all betting companies”. This sounds suspiciously like a point of principle but we are all still guessing as to the rationale. Because if this is a grandiose but exceptionally limited gesture, the credibility of Clarke and his board will be shredded.  But if on the other hand it is a bold but clear statement of business ethics, just how is it to work?

Let’s stick with this awhile: “Thanks Gambling, it’s been fun, but I don’t love you anymore and you have to move out.”  Is that what’s being said?

The inevitable extension of that is surely no sponsorship, of clubs, stands, and shirts. No bookies booths in the ground. No disembodied Ray Winstone in every footie-related ad break (and read that Hess article for his analysis on bookies’ advertising alone).

So if we are not taking abut a”hard” divorce, what would a “soft” estrangement look like? Footie and Gambling separate but we get to keep the things we like or want or need (like the money).

Clarke’s concerns about gambling and alcohol and football are well founded and a welcome formal acknowledgement that there are problems.  The quickie dismissal of Ladbrokes is significant. But it is what comes next that is really important.

Based on precedent, the odds are long that we will get a sensible answer about what a recast FA-Gambling Industry relationship will be based upon. And I’ll bet you a pint that we won’t be seeing big changes any time soon.  The links are too many, the binding too tight, the returns too big.

But I’d love to be proved wrong.

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