I’ve been a professional footballer for more than a decade. In nearly all of my 500 appearances, I’ve had an online casino advert either on my shirt or surrounding me on the pitch.
It’s no surprise. It’s impossible to watch a match in the top five men’s divisions in England without seeing adverts for gambling. My career has not taken me to the Premier League (yet) but these ads can appear more than 700 times a match on television in our top flight, where nearly half the teams have a betting sponsor on the front of their shirts.
Behind this bombardment of marketing, most of us know someone who has struggled with gambling because this addiction can happen to anyone. The harms can devastate every part of someone’s life, and those closest to them, with huge long-term cost to society.
You might think: “Well, this revenue pays wages.” But I can assure you I’d rather be paid less if it meant not profiting from addiction, harm and suicide – and I’m not the only one.
It’s easy to believe that football needs as much money as possible at all costs but we must not fall for that. Clubs are precious, they act as mental health solace for many – as the Grimsby chair, Jason Stockwood, said recently – and they are deeply trusted. I see the love, dedication and hope in the eyes of fans every week. To think this trust is exploited by the gambling industry leaves me uneasy.
Some of the gambling companies advertising at the stadiums I play in every week have been fined millions for failing to protect customers. One operator was fined more than £400,000 for advertising on the children’s colouring-in section of a club website. It will claim it has invested in “responsible gambling” messaging but this is just window-dressing.
I’m not saying gambling is bad, nor do I want to stop people from having a bet, but it says all you need to know about how a sport and a country treat a public health issue that we name our national league after a gambling company. The EFL deal with Sky Bet ends next season and after Sky Betting and Gaming sent self-excluded gamblers free spins and exploited fans through sign-up offers, I would urge the league to look elsewhere for its next sponsor.
It’s clearly not the responsibility of footballers to set policy – this should sit squarely at the feet of the government, the regulator and governing bodies, all of whom have so far failed. The government has been reviewing gambling laws for about three years and it is its duty to protect young fans from harm. But players do have a responsibility to speak up when something is so obviously harming our supporters, the communities we represent and even our colleagues.
Over the past few years, we have seen high-profile examples of footballers punished for betting on football. We are part of a strange world where we are expected to heavily promote products that could lose us our jobs if we use them.
There are reasons to be positive. It looks as if football is heading towards some sort of reset with a regulator being introduced this year which would hopefully make our game fairer, cleaner and more sustainable. It would be a huge missed opportunity if this didn’t also change the relationship between gambling and football. Betting companies contribute a tiny percentage of huge profits to football via advertising and sponsorship designed to lure in the next generation of lucrative profit makers – that’s a bad deal for the sport and for fans.
Some clubs are acting. The team I started my senior career with, Lewes FC, were one of the first of more than 30 clubs who have backed The Big Step, a campaign to end gambling sponsorship in football led by people harmed by gambling. It is part of the charity Gambling with Lives, set up by families who have lost loved ones to gambling-related suicide. Their experiences show what many of us know but don’t say: by promoting online casinos, football is risking the lives of its young fans. The stakes are just too high.
There is a growing movement to kick gambling advertising out of our national sport. I was delighted to see the Wales legend Hal Robson-Kanu publicly call for an end to gambling sponsorship last year. Now more of us on the pitch need to do the same.
David Wheeler has played in the English Football League for Exeter, QPR, Portsmouth, MK Dons and now Wycombe