Increasing ‘gamblification’ of sport now a public health crisis

Being in Ireland for July, I got to see some hurling and follow Limerick as they marched into the All-Ireland. Reading the programme for the Limerick v Kilkenny All-Ireland, one page stood out. It was a full page on a GAA campaign called “Reduce the Odds”.

Increasing ‘gamblification’ of sport now a public health crisis

The campaign is about promoting the GAA’s Code of Conduct on the regulation of betting and gambling by its members. There are two key elements to the Code. First, it prohibits sponsorship by a betting company of any GAA competition, team, playing gear or GAA facility. Second, it prohibits players, team management, or match officials from betting on games in which they are involved.

The GAA’s move to sever its ties with betting companies and their bottomless pots of sponsorship means it is one of the first sporting organisations worldwide to do so.

In this, the GAA and especially Colin Regan, the Association’s Community and Health Officer, who steered the motion through this year’s GAA Congress, deserve enormous credit.

Many sporting organisations globally, including here in Australia, have talked about doing similar but when it comes to it remain too dependent on the income from betting-related sponsors.

Large global organisations such as Fifa and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) can afford to do without official betting partnerships.

Similarly, England’s FA recently announced that it would no longer enter official partnerships with betting companies, but this severance did not extend to clubs.

As the Premier League begins this week, nine of the 20 teams will have shirts with gambling logos emblazoned upon them. In the Championship — and it is of course the SkyBet Championship — 17 of the 24 teams’ jerseys include gambling sponsors.

Given the desire of betting companies to sponsor sport, the FAI’s consideration of, in effect, blocking off such a revenue stream, is commendable.

A slightly cynical or even commercially pragmatic take from within the FAI might have been to decide that, as the GAA has effectively withdrawn as a rival for this share of the competitive sports sponsorship market in Ireland, it could benefit and build upon its existing portfolio of gambling sponsors.

Recent financial difficulties at clubs such as Bray Wanderers and Limerick might also have persuaded the FAI to engage more with, rather that withdraw from, betting sponsorship.

But it seems the FAI, led by League of Ireland director Fran Gavin, are, admirably, about to cut gambling ties.

In this, there is presumably a recognition from within the FAI, as there was in the GAA, that there is a bigger picture being drawn here.

First, there is the issue of problem gambling and the social cost associated with such addictive behaviour.

That cost is not just confined to the gambler but can extend to their wider family, friends, workmates, and even fellow club or charity volunteers, who have seen money either siphoned off or stolen by gamblers crazed by their addiction.

The scale of problem gambling in Ireland is hard to accurately assess but there is one stark global figure — Ireland has per capita the third highest rate of gambling losses in the world.

Our annual gambling losses are just over €2 billion and we are approaching €500 per adult lost on various forms of gambling every year.

If anything, that third place is misleading.

In first place is Australia, the biggest gambling losers globally. Those losses are largely attributable, as anyone who has visited Australia knows, to the dreaded proliferation of pokie machines countrywide. Fixed betting odds terminals of that kind can be found in Ireland but not with such frequency.

In second place is Singapore, where casino betting — again not a significant feature in Ireland — is a significant factor in that country’s gambling losses.

If you confine the above global statistics to either online or traditional betting markets, Ireland would likely be the world ‘leader’ in gambling loss.

The second reason why the FAI is moving towards severing its ties with gambling sponsors is, as with the GAA, paternalistic in nature. Those who play sport are attractive targets for betting companies. Those who play a sport at any level feel that they have an insider’s knowledge of the sport that gives them an advantage on the betting markets. Sports participants also tend to like the risk and buzz of a win and their competitive nature can make them chase losses.

P

layers with inside knowledge of a sport can, if used for betting purpose, also put the very integrity of their sport at risk. Match-fixing has relegated doping as the principal scourge of modern sport.

The League of Ireland has recently had to deal with allegations of match-fixing.

The nature of the betting markets today is that a scam to fix the outcome of a game and the need to have most of the players on the team in on that conspiracy is no longer necessary.

Fixing part of a game in what is called a spot fix can lead to gambling coups for those in the know.

For example, in April, former Lincoln City defender, Bradley Wood, was banned for six years after twice intentionally getting booked during Lincoln City’s FA Cup run the previous season.

Wood told a number of people including close friends in advance and the potential pot from the scam totalled around £10,000.

Lincoln’s run in the 2017 FA Cup was the story of the competition. But Wood’s actions and sanctions undermined the integrity of a competition already struggling for positive publicity and airtime. Lack of integrity in sport comes with a commercial cost.

One of the best ways to prevent match-fixing is by educating the players as to the dangers of leaking inside information to others or betting on their own team or sport.

The integrity of these match-fixing education seminars is, as Fran Gavin has recognised, sometimes undermined when the league as a whole or its clubs accept sponsorship from firms on whom such dodgy bets can be placed.

In fact, one of the major criticisms of the FAI was a deal done a number of years ago with a company that allowed live streaming of League of Ireland matches but only if you had an active betting account with that company. In order to watch your team, you had to bet on them.

The fourth reason why the GAA, and hopefully the FAI, have moved away from gambling sponsorship is the proliferation of gambling ads around sport and especially on TV, and its impact on children by way of passive gambling. In a major recent Australian study of children aged 8-16, 75% of those surveyed could name at least one sports betting company and 25% could name four.

The normalisation of betting on, or gamblification of, sport among the young is now a public health issue.

The GAA’s initiative was recently highlighted the President, Michael D Higgins, who knows sport and has heard directly from those troubled by gambling addiction and who wants to restrict betting advertising in sport.

Irish sport also needs legislative assistance. The Gambling Control Bill which has been on the books since 2013 needs to be enacted now.

The pace of change in the industry since 2013 has been bewildering — targeted social media advertising, promotional betting gimmicks, skins betting in video gaming and the opening up of the whole of the US to gambling this year by its Supreme Court all need to be risk assessed by an independent Irish gambling commissioner.

Given all of the above, the odds on the Gambling Bill, as was promised in January by the Government, becoming law by the end of the year should be short because the stakes are high.

  • Jack Anderson is a Professor of Sports Law at the University of Melbourne.

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