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  • Alex Mills

Open Letter: Sport and Gambling


The relationship between sport and gambling, and the impact on those who play sport.

Challenges and some potential solutions. It may seem like a strange time to be having a conversation about the relationship between sport and gambling and, indeed, to be raising our concerns about this increasingly dependant arrangement. It is a difficult time for everybody and we are only too aware of the financial challenges faced by many sporting organisations and, in turn, the effects and consequences on the health and wellbeing on professional sport and those involved in it. As the mental health people for professional sportspeople we are enormously concerned about how such insecurity and uncertainty is affecting the welfare of those involved in professional sport and we will continue to support those people who come to us for help, education and treatment.

That said, as I will go on to outline in the words below, there is an obvious (and perhaps overdue) concern to be raised about the relationship between gambling and sport. I believe that there is a challenging conversation to be had and have concluded that we should encourage that conversation now despite the difficult backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent restrictions that professional sporting organisations are having to follow, potentially threatening their very existence. I have concluded this because, to be frank, we at Sporting Chance are worried that these insecurities may actually serve to strengthen sport’s relationship with and dependency on the gambling industry rather than lead to an important and sensible conversation about reforming it, which is what it is our intention to participate in.

During the Spring lockdown (though not because of it) Sporting Chance began to roll out our new GATE (Gambling, Awareness, Treatment and Education) Programme. The programme is our solution-focused response to the obviously increasing demand for treatment and education services around gambling in professional sport. Gambling has become the most common addictive disorder we treat professional sportspeople for. In fact, around fifty-percent of clients that were treated for an addictive disorder at our residential clinic last year presented with gambling problems. There has also been a notable increase in requests for and take-up of education on gambling. Our GATE programme helps us to successfully address these demands, but it is also our intention to raise awareness of this serious public health issue. Our primary purpose is to provide education and treatment to sportspeople for mental health issues, including addiction, but we also have a duty to engage in discussions with sporting organisations on issues that relate directly to the mental welfare of athletes. It is rare for us to publicly to express opinions but it is apparent to us, through demand for our services in relation to gambling and through well-documented external research, that the relationship between sport and gambling has reached a pivotal point and we believe in sensible and meaningful reform in order to protect against further avoidable harm.

The current landscape.

The relationship between gambling and sport is perhaps obvious. The need of both the gambler and the gambling operator for an uncertain outcome and for fierce competition means that a natural habitat for gambling has always been, and maybe always will be, largely based in sport.

The inter-dependence or co-dependency that has been created between gambling operators, sports and media outlets may look obvious in hindsight. If it had been possible to foresee the scale and reach of these relationships, we wonder whether more effective precautionary measures could or might have been taken before things got this far. In any case, what is clear to everybody now is that these relationships and their effect on those who play sport and upon wider society have become a major concern.

I (and we at Sporting Chance) believe it is a naïve approach to attempt to dismantle these structures overnight or even that it would be a sensible thing to do and we must be careful not to sacrifice our sports’ financial stability in pursuit of worthy political headlines. However, it could be said that these structures are evolving and expanding, helped by the easing of sports betting and gambling rules in the USA. In addition to the current flooding of the sponsorship and advertising markets in sport by gambling operators, we may be witnessing an emerging trend which will see operators purchasing leverage in media outlets. This could be yet another gamechanger in the longer term. We may move from the current situation, where media outlets negotiate multi-billion pound deals to broadcast sport and then need to finance the purchase through advertising (mainly gambling advertising), to gambling operator owned media outlets negotiating directly with sports. The competition for exposure and funding for sports will become inherently linked to gambling operators.

There are two conversations to be had. One is about how these relationships and their ability to project gambling into every living room in our country affect the wellbeing of the public. The second is about how these relationships affect those that participate in professional sport. We believe that, although related, they are two different conversations and we (Sporting Chance) are naturally concerned with the latter. That said, we believe that what can be learned in addressing one may inform the other.

We do not believe that standing on the sidelines and hoping that gambling companies simply go away is either helpful or realistic. We do believe that offering a structure that provides governance and a scheduled longer term solution is both helpful and realistic.

While Sporting Chance is not anti-gambling, we do believe that change is needed. The changing of the rules around social responsibility budgets for gambling companies has created new challenges for those, like us, who support sportspeople with gambling problems. Gambling companies, whom we like to believe want to do the right thing with such funding, are looking for opportunities to do so. But they are imposing ‘responsible gambling’ initiatives onto sports that are often a poor fit and sometimes do little more than garner some positive publicity for the gambling company itself. We do believe that they are stuck as to how to work responsibly within the sports with which they are involved. What is definitely true and evidenced is that a sports professional is more likely to have a gambling problem than a member of wider society. This may be partly linked to the prevalence of and exposure to gambling that those involved in sport experience. We also find that sportspeople presenting with gambling issues do not just gamble on sport and the high proportion of harm experienced on controversial and dangerous products such as online casino-style ‘games’ by members of wider society is reflected in our treatment population. We also have concerns about the amount of gambling exposure our clients are faced with when returning to their professional environment both while receiving and after completing treatment.

Sporting Chance this year celebrates twenty years of providing mental health services to sports professionals. Much of our work is related to gambling. Our charity provided a safe place for over 1,200 current or retired sportspeople in 2019. We work closely with many sports’ welfare departments and offer advice and consultancy on the best possible structures to help their participants avoid or resolve problems. All the sports we work with have current relationships with gambling organisations although undoubtedly the most talked about and publicised is football.

We believe that the time has now come to lobby for structural change in the relationship between gambling companies and sport in the UK.

Some potential solutions.

It is one thing to recognise and be vocal about a problem, but we have considered how we can best provide and consult on solutions before making any statements on this issue.

We have presented our GATE programme to our stakeholder sports and have already run several education sessions to clubs and organisations, receiving excellent feedback. I have also expressed our concerns in writing to each of our stakeholder sports and begun having dialogue on this issue. While those conversations will remain private, it is apparent that many people within professional sport are uncomfortable with the level at which the gambling industry has managed to embed itself in the fabric of their beloved sports. It is also true that people are understandably conflicted about the repercussions of moving away from such arrangements, particularly in the current climate. We believe that solutions need to be appropriate to the landscape of each specific sport and the different challenges they may face as a result of their own unique relationship with gambling. They should include education, protection, awareness and treatment for those in need and their effectiveness should be through good governance and diligence. In the longer term, we would recommend that each sport should plan to reduce and replace gambling industry associations in a sensible and manageable way.

We specifically recommend that social responsibility monies from gambling companies should be paid into the welfare system of the sport concerned. This should be a direct percentage of any financial deal or arrangement made between a sport and a gambling organisation. This would enable the sports themselves to decide and control how those monies are allocated. Many may prefer to receive education and treatment provision from providers who are independent of the gambling industry. In our experience, this is a more comfortable arrangement for the professional sportspeople in treatment themselves.

We suggest that each sport should provide a strategy as to how this money will be used to provide the four elements mentioned above – education, protection, awareness and treatment - and that compliance and effectiveness should be overseen and monitored by the governing body of the sport and further up the line by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Any surplus from the system should then be distributed to other sporting bodies to help them achieve these goals.

We also believe in the need for governance that aims to reduce the financial dependence of any sport on one industry alone. This could, for example, be applied over an agreed period to stagger the reduction manageably. The current goal would be to wean sports off their existing dependency on the gambling industry and to avoid future over-dependency on other industries or sectors.

We hope that these recommendations combined would go some way to eliminating a (currently very conceivable) scenario where a sportsperson suffering with a gambling addiction is exposed to gambling advertising on a daily basis at their place of work, receives incompatible ‘responsible gambling’ education provided by the gambling industry itself, potentially goes on to receive treatment funded by the gambling industry and then returns to the same dangerous environment.

At Sporting Chance, we actively support the need for independent safe places that should not be influenced or directly funded by the industries whose practices contribute to mental health problems in large numbers of our client population (including but not limited the gambling industry).

Our solutions are offered as principles and ideas which may need development. We offer them for this very purpose and would be keen to assist in the development process and we encourage further open discussions. We do believe that change is necessary and overdue.

While we can successfully treat individuals, it is also important to try to prevent and protect against unnecessary harm. Our goal is to address the relationship between sport and gambling in a constructive and meaningful way that results in a healthier sporting landscape and ultimately a healthier environment for those who participate in professional sport.

Colin Bland,

Chief Executive Officer

Sporting Chance


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