Shirt spon­sors could do the right thing but don’t bet on it

Asian gam­bling mar­kets are of great value to English football – but at a high cost to ad­dicts

The Observer - Sport - - Sport - Greg Wood

There is a scene in an early episode of The Simpsons that says quite a lot about sports fans in gen­eral, and fans who gam­ble on sport in par­tic­u­lar. Krusty the Clown and his ac­coun­tant are watch­ing a bas­ket­ball game on TV. “Let me get this straight,” the ac­coun­tant says. “You took all the money you made fran­chis­ing your name and bet it against the Har­lem Glo­be­trot­ters?” To which Krusty wails: “But I thought the Gen­er­als were due.”

The Glo­be­trot­ters crossed the line be­tween a spectator sport and scripted en­ter­tain­ment. Out­side Springfi eld – where it was the lo­cal Mafi a don who laid the bet – no bookie will of­fer odds on a match where the re­sult has al­ready been de­cided. Some de­gree of un­cer­tainty is an es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent in a bet­ting mar­ket, whether it in­volves a football match, a horse race or any of the other three dozen or so sports that are listed by most ma­jor book­mak­ers.

Un­cer­tainty, in its other guise as com­pet­i­tive­ness, sells tick­ets, me­dia rights pack­ages and arm­chair sub­scrip­tions to sports bun­dles and so, in one sense at least, Premier League ex­ec­u­tives should be de­lighted that their com­pe­ti­tion is a wildly pop­u­lar gam­bling medium around the globe. If for­eign bet­ting fi rms are pay­ing big money for shirt- spon­sor­ship deals, say, it is, in its way, a sign that they are do­ing some­thing right.

But the be­wil­der­ing ar­ray of gam­bling brands as­so­ci­ated with mod­ern sport in gen­eral, and Premier League football above all, also fu­els con­cerns that book­mak­ers are get­ting too cosy and close with the events that are their raw ma­te­rial. It can feel as though ev­ery half- time com­mer­cial is for a bookie push­ing its lat­est in- play odds and as if ev­ery player is a walk­ing bill­board for a bet­ting fi rm . Are they try­ing to test how much ex­po­sure to Ray Win­stone and the lat­est in- play odds the av­er­age viewer can stand?

As high- profi le sports are re­minded on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, how­ever, gam­bling comes with bag­gage at­tached and can dump it in your lap at a mo­ment’s no­tice.

Ten­nis and cricket have en­dured sev­eral bet­ting- re­lated cor­rup­tion scan­dals in re­cent years and the lat­est dose of neg­a­tive PR for football ar­rived this past week, when Si­mon Stevens, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the NHS, ex­pressed his con­cern that eight of the nine gam­bling firms that spon­sor Premier League shirts have failed to con­trib­ute a penny to a fund set up to raise £ 10m an­nu­ally to fight gam­bling ad­dic­tion and the so­cial prob­lems it creates.

Gam­ble Aware, the char­ity that ad­min­is­ters the fund, added its sup­port, say­ing it is “se­ri­ously con­cerned that the re­la­tion­ship be­tween sport and gam­bling has reached a tip­ping point” and that it “would like to see all clubs, leagues and broad­cast­ers who profi t from gam­bling work with us to help fund treat­ment for this hid­den ad­dic­tion ”.

Stevens con­cluded by say­ing that the NHS will “work with the Premier League on how we per­suade these for­eign gam­bling com­pa­nies to do the right thing ”. Hope­fully, they will suc­ceed . But to do so, they will need to work on the com­mer­cial in­stincts of the com­pa­nies con­cerned. A sim­ple ap­peal to their bet­ter na­ture will not be enough, be­cause while the fail­ure of the eight firms to pay into the fund is cer­tainly short- sighted, their con­tri­bu­tion is at least roughly in line with their pres­ence in the Bri­tish bet­ting mar­ket, which is on the low side of al­most nil.

In­stead, 99.9% of the cus­tomers that firms such as Fun88 ( New­cas­tle), LaBa360 ( Burn­ley) and Man­betX ( Crys­tal Palace) are try­ing to attract will never watch a Premier League match in per­son or even in the coun­try where it is be­ing played. They will be bet­ting, watch­ing and sup­port­ing their favourite teams in south and east Asia , where Manch­ester United, Chelsea, Liver­pool and oth­ers have put so much ef­fort into build­ing up their sup­port. It is not just the own­er­ship of these gam­bling com­pa­nies that is, as Stevens said, for­eign . So is their ac­tual busi­ness and when, in­evitably, some of their cus­tomers suf­fer the men­tal or so­cial affl ic­tions as­so­ci­ated with gam­bling ad­dic­tion, it will not be the NHS that pays to pick up the pieces.

Bet­ting on English football has al­ways been pop­u­lar in south and east Asia but it has ex­ploded since mov­ing on­line to the ex­tent that Bri­tain is no longer the big­gest mar­ket for bet­ting on English football. These days, it is the Bri­tish odds that re­spond to moves in the Asian prices in the min­utes be­fore a big match and not vice versa, which shows where the real strength in the mar­ket lies.

This means shirt spon­sor­ships are highly prized by Asian gam­bling op­er­a­tors try­ing to carve them­selves a big­ger share of the bounty. It is that value the Premier League will need to tar­get if it is se­ri­ous about get­ting Fun88 and the rest to con­trib­ute to the treat­ment of Bri­tish gam­bling ad­dicts, be­cause sim­ply ask­ing them to do the right thing is un­likely to cut any ice.

The Premier League does not have a rep­u­ta­tion for leav­ing much be­hind when it comes to ex­ploit­ing its prod­uct, but, at the same time, the long list of Asian­based bet­ting firms spon­sor­ing shirts in the Premier League and the Cham­pi­onship leaves lit­tle room for doubt about the im­mense value of English football to Asian bet­ting mar­kets. If they pitch it cor­rectly, the hold- out eight firms will al­most cer­tainly cough up and they will do so be­cause it makes sound busi­ness sense.

That would at least help to push the Gam­ble Aware fund to­wards its £ 10m tar­get to as­sist prob­lem gam­blers in Bri­tain. For prob­lem gam­blers in Asia, it will do noth­ing at all.

It can feel as if ev­ery half- time com­mer­cial is for a bookie push­ing its lat­est odds

Nine Premier League clubs have their shirts spon­sored by gam­bling com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Crys­tal Palace, New­cas­tle and Burn­ley, who carry the brands of Asian book­ies

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