The Gambling Game

Aside from colour, what significantly distinguished Forest’s shirt-front from every other team in the Premiership until September? That’s right: no advertising emblazoned across the front. And the most frequently promoted type of business? Gambling of course! Now nine of twenty clubs in the league currently thrust out their collective chests with betting brands.

Since concluding their short-term charity support for the UN Refugee Agency, Forest have played games in unadulterated Garibaldi red as they sought new sponsorship deals. A lucrative contract with some gambling company is frequently the end result. And so it was: Asian betting company ‘Kaiyun Sports’. For a while, we luxuriated in the purity of the kit, a blank canvass and a throwback to the days before players were mobile advertising hoardings.

There’s nothing wrong with advertising as part of the culture of the Premiership or any other league. You have a product to promote and enter mutually beneficial contracts that bring money into the game. Flick through programmes a century ago and you’ll find adverts. Hoardings around pitches are nothing new. But there are questions to be asked about some products that have gained purchase in football, notably gambling. ‘The Beautiful Game’ runs the risk of becoming ‘The Betting Game’.

Betting has always swirled around and insinuated itself into the world of sport. People managed to ‘have a flutter on the horses’ before betting shops were legalised in 1961. The football pools – legally – became a sort of national lottery for decades. And then there was the betting bombshell in 1964.

I’m sat outside a convenience store on our estate, munching through slabs of pink bubblegum with a bunch of short-trousered mates. That we don’t all get lockjaw is a miracle but it’s for a good cause: collecting football cards, the full set. No gambling, just some serious chewing and card swapping. Forest players don’t figure much but there are plenty from Spurs, Burnley (check their standing in those days!), Manchester United (obviously) and – wait for it – Sheffield Wednesday. That meant trouble in our home. I was vaguely aware that some of their players had been in the news but it wasn’t until my dad spotted mugshots of them in my grubby hands that the situation became clear. ‘You can get them out of our house!’ he declared.

It turned out that Peter Swan and Tony Kay (smiling at me in their blue and white striped shirts) had just been convicted, along with team-mate David Layne, of match-fixing and betting. They’d been enticed into a syndicate started by ex-Mansfield Town player Jimmy Gauld and it ended with a clutch of players receiving life-bans (later reduced) when the trial was held at Nottingham Assizes. It shook the world of football in England, particularly given that Swan and Kay had represented their country at international level.

Who’s to say what’s happened between then and now but, in the last couple of months, players betting on matches with which they’re connected has reared its head again. Last week, Newcastle’s Sandro Tonali was banned from football for ten months by the Italian Football
Federation for breaching betting rules. He won’t be available for selection until August and the Magpies only bought him this July for £55m! A couple of months back, Brentford’s England striker, Ivan Toney, was given an eight month ban for betting against his own team in seven games when he didn’t play.

Both have been well-supported by their clubs because they’ve been identified as having gambling addictions. Fair enough. That was also the case with two of Arsenal’s best players, Tony Adams and Paul Merson, during their ‘invincible’ years, though their betting habits were outside football. Footballers are, and have been, susceptible to the lure of betting. If plenty of us are pulled towards ‘a flutter’, the calculated chance, players have time and money to participate at a far more serious level.

They are also, increasingly, immersed in a working environment saturated with gambling paraphernalia. As ‘Big Step’, the campaign to end all gambling advertising and sponsorship in football, says: ‘Every football game is wall-to-wall with gambling ads, not just across shirts but around stadiums and related media content. Sending someone addicted to gambling into this environment is like sending an alcoholic to work in a pub. If you force young players to endorse addictive products, then don’t be surprised if they use them’.

Whether or not you agree with that assessment – and there are plenty of respected figures in the game who simply say betting’s always been part of football culture – the way in which the betting industry has inveigled its way into football is astonishing. In normalising the connection between the sport and the industry, it has made it easier for younger supporters to see the two as inseparable. That is unhealthy. Gambling does not exist to foster good health in football but to exploit its potential – at any cost. From 2026, betting sponsorship on shirt-fronts will be banned. Big deal! Just expect shirt-sleeves to become longer and LED pitch hoardings to be more intrusive. And how about the pitch? That’s a lot of empty green space out there. How can we utilise that? Sponsorship deals for penalty spots, goal-posts and centre-circles, perhaps.

There are so many reasons why football has to disentangle itself from the clutches of the gambling industry. Will those who are employed to oversee our game grasp the nettle? I doubt it. I foresee an inexorable amalgamation between betting and the ball unless there is heavy-duty
government intervention. Gambling has adapted to, and exploited brilliantly, the potential of mobile-phone, social-media culture so that we can gamble-on-the-go. I hear neighbours define matches through bets they’ve placed. Is that the beautiful game? Hang on to your plain red replica shirts, Forest fans, as a reminder of less tainted times.

*Article provided by Stephen Parker (Nottingham Forest Correspondent).

*Main image @NFFC Forest are this season sponsored by an Asian gambling company.

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