Making football a Winstone-free zone should be just the start
Decision to take betting adverts off our screens during games is welcome but more needs to be done to tackle the scourge of gambling addiction
Anybody who has crossed the threshold of a Las Vegas casino can hardly fail to have noticed the absence of clocks. Through deprivation of both natural light and, crucially, the ability to tell the time, guests are seduced into what the gambling industry likes to call “hyperfocus”, where any best-laid plans dissolve amid the ambient, agitating cacophony of one-armed bandits, whose jubilant bells and sirens are all designed to reinforce the brain’s positive feedback loop.
In sport, the betting giants try the same insidious meddling with the mind, to the point where the football match you are watching becomes almost incidental to the flutters you can have. During this year’s World Cup, the bombardment was remorseless, with ITV devoting 90 minutes – roughly one sixth of its total advertising time – to the full exotica of Russian wagers, from potential Luis Suarez biting targets to which song Robbie Williams would perform first at the opening ceremony.
All just harmless merriment? A diversion from drudgery for responsible adults? Not if you read the decision yesterday by the Remote Gambling Association to stop adverts during live sports broadcasts, after fierce criticism that they both normalised betting and encouraged under-age addiction. There will be a temptation to depict this as a rare display of self-awareness by bookmakers, although it seems little more than caving into the truth. As even Bryn Lucas, whose allegiance might have been deduced from his role presenting Supercasino, a live roulette show on the Channel Five graveyard shift, put it: “About b----- time.”
The RGA’S action pre-empts its own moment of reckoning. For it is a long-established truth that if big businesses do not take steps to regulate themselves, then governments will step in to do it for them, and often in a far more draconian fashion.
Still, it feels like a seminal juncture in British cultural life that Ray Winstone’s weather-beaten face shall no longer be foisted on the public like the CGI version of Frankenstein’s monster.
“It’s all about the in-play,” the nation’s favourite geezer would growl. “It’s all about the next goal, the number of corners, the match goals, the final score, the next goal method, the number of cards.”
Such is the ubiquity that Winstone has achieved through his Bet365 campaigns that one can scarcely glance at a list of odds without hearing his gravelly entreaty to “have a bang on that”.
But the country is finally recognising that his Cockney badinage conceals an enterprise of boundless cynicism, where a quiet Sunday afternoon on the sofa brings unlimited chances to be fleeced for every penny you have. At its extremes, gambling can be no less pernicious an addiction than smoking.
And yet, where cigarette packets must now carry images of diseased lungs or gruesome tumours to warn off would-be users, betting commercials come with only a tokenistic reminder to gamble responsibly.
Under the latest rules, all matches that start before the 9pm watershed have been protected from the in-play betting plague. In part, this was a reaction to the dawn-till-dusk shrillness of World Cup bet promotions. Of late, though, it has appeared as if no corner of sport is immune. For this year’s Australian Open men’s final, 19 of the 20 TV advert breaks, which began as early as 8.15am, featured a spot for a betting firm. Welcome to the brave new world, where no sooner have you poured the cereal milk than you are assailed by the first screaming urges of Chris Kamara to “edit your acca”.
Grown adults might find this a temptation they can well resist. But among children, the response patterns can be far more corrosive. Surveys suggest that a third of children with mobile phones have a gambling app, and that a quarter of them have placed a bet. This squares with a diagnosis by the Gambling Commission that 25,000 11-16-year-olds are “problem gamblers”. Jack Ritchie, from Sheffield, started gambling in the first year of A-levels, pouring his lunch money into fixed-odds betting terminals. Seven years later, he killed himself.
One would like to imagine that