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It is time to decouple sport and gambling

Published 2 months ago 15th October 2022 by Ronan Quirke

I hate cigarettes and I am glad that sport managed to eliminate its dependence on cigarette advertising. If you think back to the 1980’s, tobacco advertising was everywhere. And sport wasn’t exempt from the tentacles of this perfidious advertising. The very fact that a healthy pursuit like sport could be associated with such an unhealthy pursuit like smoking tobacco didn’t seem to register with too many people as long as the cash kept coming. Remember the Carroll’s Irish Open, the Embassy World Snooker Championship, the Rothman’s Grand Prix as well as all the formula one racing cars festooned with every conceivable tobacco brand?
Long gone, thank goodness, and tobacco advertising has gone with it, from broadcast media to print media. We place large taxes on cigarettes to help pay for the health repercussions that affect users of the products. We have replaced warnings such as ‘smoking can damage your health’ with more overt statements such as ‘smoking kills’. In short, we woke up and realised that advertising of tobacco products was a public health matter and that limiting advertising, would prevent people taking up smoking and becoming lifelong addicts.
Snooker and motor sport in particular were able to wean themselves off cigarette advertising and despite predictions that the sky would fall in on revenues, these sports survived and indeed thrived.
Other advertising sources were identified and tapped. Tobacco companies became an advertising pariah. The Marlboro Man was retired, he later died of lung cancer aged 73.
Into the space that tobacco left behind has entered gambling. On line betting is big business and it uses sport to grow its business further. It was reported last week that Ireland’s largest bookmaker, Boylesports, is understood to be a takeover target with some suggesting that the company is worth hundreds of millions of euros. Eye watering amounts of money for any business but reflective of the market conditions that pertain and serve to illustrate how much money there is to be made in gambling.
Right now it is almost impossible to attend or even watch a sporting event without blanket advertising by gambling companies. If you watch any sport on television, gambling companies occupy a large proportion of the commercial breaks. At half time in a match you are offered odds, asked if you want to check out before the game ends etc etc. It is just excessive. And sport has a gambling addiction, an addiction to the money that gambling companies are willing to pay for access to potential customers.
North Sea Connection was a drama series that ended last week on RTE television. One of the characters, Aidan Kenny, has a gambling addiction. It, amongst other factors, is threatening his business and his marriage. During a commercial break in the program, one of the adverts that RTE ran was for a betting company. The advert offered the best odds, free bets for new and returning customers, lots of images of happy punters with clenched fists delighting in their win. The advert did not include any images of the ones being portrayed in the TV drama that ran alongside, borrowing money from friends and family, keep on betting in the hope that your luck will turn, losing more and more money, unable to stop, tearing families apart. The juxtapositioning of the advert during the drama series didn’t occur to anyone in the RTE accounts department.
I realise that gambling companies run small disclaimers at the end of adverts, encouraging customers to gamble safely, offer website addresses such as Gambling Care and Problem Gambling etc. Much like drink companies encourage customers to drink aware in small print at the end of their adverts. How very good of them. How very 1980’s. Much like the old, ‘smoking may damage your health’ warnings, gambling customers are encouraged to gamble responsibly. They are not told that ‘gambling ruins lives’ or that ‘gambling kills’.
We all have skin in the game here. Gambling is so ingrained in a large proportion of society that it is fully normalised. Whenever I preview matches on the Extra Time program on TippFM, I often refer to the odds, I might reference one team as the bookies favourite, or in the case of an upset I’d often remark that such a result would have gotten long odds, all part of the normal sporting vernacular and all seemingly normal. Just like it seemed normal to watch Alex Higgins smoke countless cigarettes between frames of snooker in the 1980’s.
Can you imagine watching horse racing, for example, without references to gambling? Go one further, could horse racing exist without gambling? I love watching Cheltenham and other big meetings both here and across the water. I love it when Irish trained horses do better that their English counterparts in the Cotswolds. And I particularly love watching Rachael Blackmore break glass ceiling after glass ceiling. Because Rachael is from Tipperary and she is as good as anyone in the world at what she does. And I think I can enjoy watching all that without the need to have money at stake. But by the same token, I am not enthused by racing in Kilbeggan on a wet Thursday in November. Zero interest. But some people love it and attend such meetings and are very much the lifeblood of the racing community. And then some people take an interest in racing in Kilbeggan on a wet Thursday because they enjoy gambling. And all of that is perfectly fine and normal. Until it stops being normal.
Gambling addiction is an insidious thing. It is an invisible thing until it is too late. It destroys lives, marriages, businesses, everything. And its incidence is rising, rapidly. The COVID pandemic changed many things, high street bookmakers were shut and gamblers went online. What emerged from the pandemic was that the increase in online gambling also saw an increase in problem gambling severity, and younger age groups displaying problem gambling habits. Research from Europe and Australia suggests that valued forms of entertainment, especially sport, are used to normalise betting and create positive attitudes towards gambling by seeing gambling as an interactive part of sport participation and viewing. The days of just having a yearly flutter on the Grand National are long gone. The Aintree sweepstake at work was always a bit of fun and this article is not suggesting that this isn’t normal behaviour. Of course it is. But now we have apps on our phone, on line accounts, free bets in newspapers, it has permeated into lives much like tobacco did successfully all those years ago.
Sports shows on TV and radio are sponsored by gambling companies. Newspapers carry full page adverts by gambling companies. In the past we watched sport with little to no financial interest in the game, now we gamble billions each year, not just on who we think will win, but also minutiae like who will score first, when the first corner kick will be, how many players will get a yellow card. I can go online now and get a spread bet on Commercials against Upperchurch this Sunday. That’s right, someone in an office in an industrial estate somewhere is fixing odds on the Tipperary football championship and encouraging on line users to gamble on it. There is no escape unless you confine yourself to underage games.
Tony O’Reilly was a postmaster in Carlow. He had a turnover of around €10 million with Paddy Power over a 10 year period. He was arrested for stealing €1.75m from his employer, An Post. No one shouted stop. Oisin McConville, the former Armagh footballer, spoke recently of his gambling addiction. How he had taken ‘every penny from his mother’s bag’. How he lost €42,000 at Cheltenham and how he took out a €20,000 credit union loan just to bet on one horse. One horse!
Tyrone footballer Conn Kilpatrick also recently spoke about his gambling addiction that started with him betting innocently in his teens, that soon became an addiction, how it spiralled out of control and how he relapsed after 18 months without a bet. The story is so familiar and so repetitive.
The sports stars get the limelight for telling their story but they are only the minority. Gambling addiction is an epidemic. It is a health emergency, a mental health emergency. And if we want to tackle it we need to cut the umbilical between sport and gambling. Not everyone who gambles is an addict. Not everyone who drinks is an alcoholic and not all smokers die of a smoking related disease.
But enough smokers were dying for us to tackle it. The association between sport and smoking was seen as incongruous. Gambling can be fun and it can be destructive. And the increase in destructive gambling patterns is at a stage where its association with sport, for me, has become incongruous.
Sport is addicted to gambling revenue. Gambling companies target sport as their best way of attracting new customers. There are twenty teams in the English Premiership, eight of them have gambling companies as their shirt sponsors. And gambling companies pay huge premiums to have their names visible, and they pay those sums because it works. It attracts young men (mostly) to spend money on their gambling sites. And I surely need not tell you that those men lose more than they win. But you never hear about or see the losses, only the wins.
It is deceitful and it is wrong. Gambling ruins lives, costs lives. It is an epidemic and sport is being corrupted by it. All sports need to decouple themselves from gambling and if they won’t do it voluntarily, then the Government
need to legislate for it. Change has to happen, but I wouldn’t bet on it anytime soon.

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