For many people, the last year would have been a lot harder without football. It has provided a fantastic distraction, something to break up our monotonous weeks and assuage our pervasive dread; basically, something to think and talk about other than coronavirus.
Yet watching football in its current form has also been distinctly bittersweet. In a very real way, the game has been stripped of its humanity: the boarded-up pubs, the echoing stadiums – thank god for the fake crowd sounds – and the endless proliferation of advertisements, which have escaped the confines of billboards and replaced punters in the stands. Against this backdrop the story of Football Index, the online betting firm that went into administration last week, seems even sadder.
Football Index marketed itself as a fantasy league stock exchange, where users were encouraged to turn their knowledge into cash. They bought ‘shares’ in players; good performances led to ‘dividends’. Users invested thousands: some made serious returns. Then, last week, via a blunt announcement on its website, the company announced it was slashing these dividends. Chaos ensued. On Saturday, the site announced it was going into administration. Scores of people have been left in financial ruin, some losing their entire life savings.
While Football Index is, in some ways, a unique proposition, to the experts who work in this field, its story is crushingly familiar. Over the last few decades, the gambling industry has devoured British sport.
Darragh McGee, an assistant professor in the Department of Health at the University of Bath, remembers being on the tube to a Crystal Palace game four or five years ago, and seeing a row of posters for Football Index. “I thought, ‘Oh, here we go. Yet another sign that the gambling industry has engulfed the culture of football as we know it’”, he says.
The “gamblification” of sport is a change years in the making; a “perfect storm of elements”, in McGee’s words. “Gambling has become culturally embedded and normalised in the sporting world,” he says. “The process of consuming sport today is increasingly entwined with gambling practices. We’ve got an accelerated sports culture, in which the casual staking of money is almost an essential accompaniment to watching the game for a lot of young fans today.”
All experts interviewed for this story point to the same historic changes. The first came in 1994, with the introduction of the National Lottery. “As soon as the lottery was allowed to advertise on television, you’ve got the football pools and the bingo operators turning around saying, ‘It’s not fair, you’re allowing them to advertise, but we can’t and our form of gambling is no worse than yours,’” Griffiths says.
The second was legislative. In 2005, Tony Blair’s Labour government passed the UK Gambling Act, which deregulated gambling. Before this, the bedrock of gambling legislation in this country was the 1968 Gambling Act, explains Mark Griffiths, an expert in behavioural addiction at Nottingham Trent University. This act began Britain’s transformation into a haven for gamblers; the next big leap
Until the Gambling Act came into force in 2007, television and radio advertising for casinos, betting shops and online gambling sites was prohibited. One study shows that, between 2007 and 2013, spending on gambling advertising increased by 600 per cent.
Over the last decade, this advertising has transformed placing a bet into a ritual as standard as getting a pre-match pint, an association that has allowed companies like Football Index to thrive. A 2017 study found that “gambling marketing has become firmly embedded in the financial practices of many Premier League football clubs”. Last year, one report found that “gambling has become an increasingly normalised aspect of sports fandom for male youth demographics in the UK”. Another found that gambling logos frequently occur in football-related products and media consumed by children, while another found that just under half of young people and more than two-thirds of adults were able, unprompted, to name at least one gambling brand.
This type of penetration would have been impossible without another historical change. The 2005 Gambling Act, explains McGee, was introduced with no real conception of the approaching technological revolution. The internet, then smartphones, annihilated the limitations time and space had placed on betting. Punters no longer have to search out the frosted windows of the high street betting shop and brave the stigma associated with them: they carry an infinity of bookmakers in their pocket, and can place bets 24/7, from anywhere, on any game. (Hence, during lockdown, betting firms encouraging bets on everything from Nicaraguan soccer, Ukrainian table tennis and Chinese baseball, to FIFA video game tournaments and the virtual Grand National.)
Experts call this change the move from “discontinuous” to “continuous” gambling: it encompasses the rise of in-play gambling – second-by-second betting on everything from the number of throws, to how far a player sprints in a game. Football Index drew on these kinds of Moneyball-esque micro statistics. Betting on them has proven extraordinarily lucrative. They account for more than half of all sports betting revenue in Europe, explains David Forrest, a professor of economics at the University of Liverpool.
“The financial benefit of betting to football comes from the rise of in-play betting,” he says. “In-play betting is only possible if match events like goals can be instantly transmitted to bookmakers. The stadium operator is best placed to supply this information, so all sports now derive revenue from data sales. This, rather than sponsorship, is the financial boost to world football.”
The Premier League sits right at the centre of this transformation. “Online gambling and football are symbiotic, particularly in the Premier League,” says Rebecca Cassidy, an anthropologist at Goldsmiths, University of London. “The liberalisation of gambling and the creation of the Premier League are coincident.”
Football Index was typical of this normalisation – it was advertised on the shirts of QPR and Nottingham Forest – but differed in several interesting ways. Though licensed by the Gaming Commission, and emphatically a gambling site, it sold itself as a stock exchange. Users who visited the site were greeted with the slogan: “Every time you put on a bet with the bookies, you’re being played. Become a football trader, and take back control.” (The Athletic points out that in 2019 the UK Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint that Football Index ran an advert that gave the impression it was “an investment opportunity when, in fact, it was a betting product”.)
This day trader hook, explains McGee, was highly appealing to young men, tapping into masculine tropes of wealth and authority. “It’s a glorified image, particularly for working-class men,” he says. “Not only do they not have access to the steady jobs their fathers had, their chances of a steady career are very precarious. And here you have this image of becoming a stock market trader overnight, using your football knowledge. That’s deeply alluring.”
This hook also indicated that the game, rather than just being another form of gambling, privileged knowledge over chance. Speculation, Football Index’s game, is a particularly dangerous form of gambling: there is no clear understanding of how much someone might lose. “Sports bettors, particularly male sports bettors, endorse the ‘illusion of control’ – the belief that knowledge of the underlying domain can boost their chances of winning,” says Philip Newall, postdoctoral researcher at Central Queensland University. “Football Index exploited this by basing their game on football, but this domain knowledge doesn’t really help people make money since knowledge of the algorithm Football Index used to decide prices is the key aspect of the game, and this will have been opaque to most users.”
Whether gamblification has led to more people gambling is not clear. Certainly, there has been an increased market share for online sports gambling. But Forrest explains that there looks to have been a shift in how people bet – spending shifted away from horses to football over this period, for instance – rather than an explosion of participation. He cites participation data from four British Gambling prevalence surveys carried out between 2010 and 2018. Between the first and last, the percentage of adults betting on sports at a physical bookmaker declined from 7.2 to four per cent (sports betting does not include horses and dogs, most of it is football). Online betting (which includes horses and dogs), participation increased from three per cent to 7.4 per cent over this period.
The link between increased marketing and problem gambling is also not established, says Griffiths, citing his own 2018 study. “Problem gambling has actually stayed the same, it’s still around half a per cent in this country,” he says. “I’m not trying to minimise it, because that’s still tens of thousands of individuals. So there hasn’t actually been an increase in problem gambling, but what there has probably been a displacement.”
Yet for many people, gambling, even at this steady societal rate, remains a life-defining addiction. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport launched a review of the 2005 Gambling Act in December last year (as well as a consultation on video game ‘loot boxes’). It is due to publish a white paper before the end of this year. “Gambling has dire consequences for many young men,” says McGee. “The research that I’ve conducted has followed the unfolding stories of young men whose everyday lives are now punctuated by social and financial precarity, high interest payday loans, bank debt, mortgage defaults, family breakdown, relationship breakdown and mental health struggles.”
We know that the beauty of ‘the beautiful game’ comes from something more than placing a bet: at some deep human level, aesthetic appreciation must conflict with a financial incentive. How long one can thrive in the shadow of the other remains unclear. “You know, 33 years ago, when I started researching this area, the idea that somebody could gamble on a bingo site through Facebook: you couldn’t have predicted that kind of stuff, or at least I could never have predicted it,” says Griffiths. “We just don’t know what the longer-term effects of all this are.”
Will Bedingfield is a culture writer at WIRED. He tweets from @WillBedingfield
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