Warning from a Small Island: The Effect of Sports Gambling in the UK

A Red Sox player standing in front of The Green Monster seats, which prominently display ads from two sports book betting firms.

Do you know who the man in the video below is?

Can you already hear what he is saying before you even press ‘Play’?

If, like me, the answer is ‘yes’ to both, then you probably watched football in the late 2000s and early 2010s in the UK. The ad below was shown so often I can recite it word-for-word.

This article is one part a cautionary tale and another part a description of what changes to betting laws has done to the UK in the last 20 years. 

My Story

Betting shops had always existed in the UK – I remember my dad going down one every year to put bets on my family’s picks for The Grand National (the UK’s equivalent of The Kentucky Derby). Where I grew up, they were always on back/side streets, but that all changed as I hit my late teens.

In 2005, the UK amended its gambling laws, the concepts of ‘Super Casinos’ were suddenly created, and a past time which once had been maligned was now portrayed to be a leisure activity of the masses.

I, like many of my friends and colleagues, became interested in sports betting. In my town, Ladbrokes – a popular UK betting chain – opened up right next to the pub we liked to go to watch the football. This meant you could nip in before the game while on the way to the pub and place a bet on the match. Also, on a Saturday, someone would usually put a load of football betting slips around the pub.

When you went in, you’d always note how dark the places were and how it was depressing that the same two or three old blokes were in there watching the horse racing, but yet, you’d go in on a weekend afternoon, put a fiver or tenner down and return with a little betting slip on Benni McCarthy scoring first, or something of that ilk. 

For me, the joy came from not only winning bets, but from getting things right that your friends disagreed on. And, as long as someone in your group of friends won, there was always a free round of drinks for the lads. If the world has stayed that way, gambling might have not become the issue it is now in the UK.

But it didn’t – smart folks from the US of A invented this device called a smartphone which brought the world wide web to your fingertips wherever you were. Soon, you were able to place bets on your phones instead of having to go to the dank betting shops, meaning you could do it from the comfort of your seat in the pub or your own couch. Chat through the possible options with your friends, place a bet without having to go anywhere, then get a payout straight to your account. Amazing.

I cannot tell you exactly how much I gambled, but, between the ages of 18-20, I estimate I bet at least £20 every Saturday and Sunday of the football calendar.  Which back then was five-six hours’ work at minimum wage. 

I was relatively smart/lucky early on and never really got any issues monetarily, but I showed signs of being affected by what I was doing. I would refer to the amount I’d bet as “eggs” to friends disassociating the activity from monetary loss which is a tell-tale sign of the start of a issue with gambling.

The big issue for me was on the horizon though. The advent of mobile sports gambling brought about the next paradigm shift for betting; in-play betting. Instead of just being able to bet on things before a game started, you became able to bet on games while they were ongoing. A plethora of new betting was now at your fingertips;

  • Watching the game and you think one team is definitely going to bag the next goal; you can bet on that.
  • Your favourite striker is coming off the bench and you think he’ll score next; you can bet on that.
  • A side is dominant and you think they’ll get the next corner; you can bet on that.

Thus, a whole new world was at your fingertips and everyone thought they could beat the system as it’s new and naïve. The sophisticated gambler that I thought I was had determined this was easy money.

My approach to all this was to find teams that were two goals or more up with a small amount of time left and bet on them no matter how small the odds. They could be 1-20 and my £20 bet would only give me a £1 gain but these were all dead certs. No team would blow these leads.

I’d bet everything in one go, slowly turning my £20 into £40, then £60 and so on. However, one screw-up and back to zero I’d go. Then, the next time I’d bet a little more to cover the previous loss. I was searching for odds all the time, placing bets on lower league football in countries like Estonia and Latvia. I eventually branched out into other sports just looking for those moments when the odds were very heavily in my favour.

I started to lose money gambling, not enough that it was a serious issue but enough that I’d occasionally ask friends to pay for me in the pub or on nights out and I’ll pay them back in a day or two when I got paid.

Luckily, I had a friend who noticed what I was going through. They helped me identify to myself that this was an issue which could escalate into a serious one. I deleted the betting apps on my phone and my friend would regularly check up on me to make sure I wasn’t betting and failing back into this bad habit.

It was difficult, but I’m forever grateful to that individual for what they did. If I’d tried to stop myself from gambling it would have been very hard as, by that moment, sports betting in the UK was everywhere.

The issue

So, let’s bring this back to Ray. From the late 2000’s onwards in the UK, it became impossible to watch football without gambling being shoved down your throat. Any games on TV would have pre-match and half time ads telling you specific odds about the game you’re watching.

If you managed to avoid those, a good number of football teams in the UK were sponsored by gambling companies. As a recovering problem gambler, I could barely watch the sport I wanted without being bombarded by stuff trying to get me to bet again.

Currently, eight Premier League clubs have betting firms as their front of shirt sponsor ((Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Therefore, I decided I had to step away from watching football and, more generally, sports in the UK as betting was all over the place. It was in the time period that I found American sports and specifically baseball.

I’ve told many people my story of getting into baseball and being disenfranchised by UK sport but I’ve barely ever mentioned the influence of gambling on that to anyone. I’ve mostly been embarrassed to talk about it, afraid of the stigma of being an historic problem gambler if I told people that. But, seeing what is happening in MLB, I feel this is something I’d like others to see.

Part of the solace that I found in American sports was that there was no betting associated with the sport whatsoever outside of Vegas. In fact, it was illegal in most states to bet on sports and baseball effectively had betting as the cardinal sin of the sport.

These sports did have their ways of getting people to gamble but I will defend fantasy sports as more of a skill game than one of luck. And it also wasn’t rammed down my throat to place money on it.

These sporting safe havens allowed me to continue to watch sport, which is what I love to do and recover from problems that I was having with gambling. I worry that baseball can no longer be that safe haven.

In the past few years, I’ve seen the growth of gambling in baseball. Starting with things like Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS), which are still akin to a skill game but much closer to straight up gambling, to where we are now with the displaying of pre-game and in-game odds of home runs and stolen bases.

What I personally find worrying about odds being on screen and the commentary team talking about them is less that its gambling, which is inherently a predatory industry, but more that it’s making the sport no longer a safe space for people who have addiction problems.

If baseball was like this back in 2012-13, I wouldn’t have watched the sport and I would have missed out on what is now my favourite sport to watch and play. My life would be completely different without baseball in it and I worry that someone won’t get into baseball because of this.

The UK Gambling Problem

I want to give you all some UK statistics to tell you why I think that gambling is a predatory industry. And show you something that goes beyond just my anecdotal story of the impact of sports gambling.

According to UK government statistics, 54% of adults in the UK gamble (40% if you exclude our National Lottery).  The latest Public Health England report on gambling shows 0.5% of the population are problem gamblers, and 3.8% are ‘at-risk’ gamblers. And 7% are affected negatively by another person’s gambling. To me, that is a startling percentage of people which are impacted negatively by gambling. 

The reason I think the industry is predatory is who it impacts most. The highest level of gambling participation is reported by people who have better general psychological health and higher life satisfaction. Meanwhile, people who have poorer psychological health are less likely to report gambling participation. However, it is the opposite for at-risk and problem gambling, where there is a higher prevalence among people with poor health, low life satisfaction and wellbeing. This is particularly true where there is an indication of psychological health problems.

The 2023 economic analysis estimated that the annual excess direct financial cost to the government associated with harmful gambling is equivalent to £412.9 million. It also shows that our estimate for the annual societal value of health impacts is equivalent to between £635 and £1,355.5 million (in 2021 to 2022 prices). This provides a combined estimate of approximately £1.05 to £1.77 billion.

So, if you read the last three paragraphs, you know that it impacts a reasonable amount of people, disproportionately affects the vulnerable more and is costing the UK government at least £1 billion. You might be wondering why the UK government hasn’t done much to help with this then.

The simple answer is money. Gross gambling in the UK is £14 billion and the government gets £3.5 billion of that in tax. Which is about 0.3% of the annual budget for 2023 in the UK.

Big gambling operators and their lobby groups have lavished hundreds of thousands of pounds in hospitality on MPs, some of whom have repeated industry talking points word-for-word in Parliament. Pro-industry MPs, such as Philip Davies and Laurence Robertson, have earned tens of thousands of pounds from second jobs consulting for companies including the Ladbrokes owner Entain.

Despite growing criticism, it doesn’t seem like the government here is doing much to oppose the gambling industry’s impact on its constituents. The picture is slightly changing with football though; The English Football League only recently agreed to end a partnership under which clubs took a cut of fans’ betting losses. However, earlier this month, it signed a five-year extension to its partnership with SkyBet.

In the Premier League, clubs have agreed to give up gambling sponsors on shirts from 2026, but will keep pitch-side displays – the most visible form of gambling advertising in the game – with one study showing that advertising hoardings contribute to betting firm logos being shown up to 3,500 times during Premier League games.

Most estimates have this hurting the UK’s gambling industry’s revenue by 3% at most, which is easily counteracted by growth in the US and African market. There is a potential future where there won’t be a popular sport which is free from the influence of gambling. There might not be a sport which can be the safe haven to sports fans who are recovering addicts or trying to deal with their gambling problem.

In conclusion

I don’t know what the solution is. There are large number of people who can and do gamble responsibly but making it more readily available and more in your face is definitely not the solution. This will only hurt those who are most vulnerable to the risks on gambling and it is sad to see Rob Manfred and MLB continue down this route.

Russell Eassom is the co-host of the Bat Flips & Nerds podcast, and can be found on Twitter @REassom.

Featured image – AP Photo/Charles Krupa

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