The connection between football and gambling is strong and seems to get stronger every year. When you watch a fixture on Sky television, you’ll see an advert for Sky Bet. In fact, Sky Bet directly sponsors the English Football League Championship as well as League One or League Two. The World Cup is on at the moment, you’ll no doubt already have seen numerous adverts on television for the latest odds offered by big betting companies on the next round of fixtures. You can place bets on any sport, but football appears to have an especially cosy relationship with the gambling sector. That relationship doesn’t sit well with everybody.
The end of October 2022 saw almost every licensed gambling company in the UK take part in “Safer Gambling Week,” which is an initiative to promote safer gambling habits among players in the UK, including using tools to set limits, take time-outs, and generally ensure that they’re only spending when it’s safe and fun to do so. The campaign is highly visible, but if you’re a fan of football – and lower league football in particular – you might soon see a campaign that’s every bit as visible and far more direct in its approach. A coalition of football clubs has come together to take a stand against gambling adverts in football, and one of them is our local Billericay Town.
Across a number of fixtures through late November and into December, teams around the country will ask players to wear yellow laces in their boots to match the yellow of “The Big Step” – a campaign that wants to end the practice of gambling companies sponsoring football teams and advertising at football matches forever. The charity and the campaign are the brainchild of Dale Vince, the owner of Forest Green Rovers, who now play (ironically enough) in Sky Bet League One. Forest Green Rovers were the first team to wear the special laces, doing so in an FA Cup game against South Shields that was broadcast live on the BBC. Vince believes that the influence of gambling within football is both “uncontrolled” and “running away” and that the responsibility to do something about it falls upon individual teams if larger entities aren’t prepared to act.
It has yet to be confirmed which game or games Billericay Town’s players will be wearing yellow boots for, but they’re not the only non-league team taking part in the campaign. Headingly AFC is also involved in the campaign, as is Dulwich Hamlet. Llantwit Major will be wearing yellow laces in the Welsh league, and the women’s football teams Lewes FC and Glasgow City have agreed to do the same. Tranmere Rovers didn’t agree to take part in the laces campaign but instead wore special yellow t-shirts before an FA Cup fixture of their own against Carlisle United in late October.
One of the most notable things about the campaign – other than the bright colours of the laces – is the lack of participation from higher up the football pyramid. That’s almost certainly not a coincidence. The higher up the pyramid you go, the more likely it is that you’ll find teams sponsored by high-profile gambling and casino companies. No fewer than eight Premier League teams (Bournemouth, Brentford, Fulham, Southampton, Newcastle United, West Ham United, Leeds United, Everton) have high-profile casinos or their sister sites as front-of-shirt sponsors, plus six more teams with gambling-related front-of-shirt sponsors in the Premier League. Even in cases where gambling companies aren’t sponsoring shirts, the forty-four teams in England’s top two divisions have thirty-one “official betting partners” between them. Around Europe, sixty per cent of all clubs in the “big three” leagues have gambling companies for sponsors. These teams aren’t going to campaign against the people who are paying their bills.
The idea that gambling adverts might be having a harmful impact on people who watch football isn’t new. It’s one that the Premier League and the English Football League are well aware of. In the case of the EFL, it claims to have undertaken its own research and concluded that there isn’t a direct connection between gambling adverts and gambling addiction. The Premier League concurs with this conclusion, as does – perhaps unsurprisingly – the Betting and Gaming Council. Furthermore, the EFL believes that its clubs would lose out on £40m per year if betting adverts were to be banned. It would be difficult for many of the affected clubs to make up for the shortfall. There’s a general feeling that clubs would love to stop advertising gambling companies if they could but won’t do so until they can attract the same level of income from elsewhere.
Any decision about whether or not gambling and football have a future together may eventually be taken out of the hands of the clubs and the organisations. The UK government has been holding off on publishing a “white paper” on gambling reforms since July. It’s been suggested that one of the recommendations within the white paper is that a ban on football advertising should be introduced. The Premier League is also overdue to hold a vote among clubs about whether or not to impose a voluntary ban on gambling companies sponsoring shirts, regardless of whether or not the government acts. There isn’t yet a date for the vote, but the fact that the matter is even on the table for discussion suggests that time may soon be up for such sponsorship arrangements.
Will the laces campaign be effective? Without wishing to be cynical, the answer is “probably not.” If Forest Green Rovers is the highest-profile club taking part in the campaign, it’s doubtful that the mainstream media will even notice it’s happening. Bigger clubs and better-known players would have to climb aboard for the campaign to have a hope, and that isn’t likely for the reasons we’ve explained above. In the meantime, if you happen to see a Billericay Town game and wonder why all the players have yellow laces in their boots, now you know.