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BST Gazette Column 19/10/2018

BST19/10/2018

Regular readers of BST’s Gazette column often observe that it covers the same ground, making the same points on a regular basis. There are obvious reasons (and justifications) for this. The first is that for nearly a year now nothing has altered significantly from one month to the next regarding the dire ownership issue at Blackpool FC – though that might be about to change with next week’s court sessions. The second is that it isn’t always the same people who come across the column each week, so there is merit in saying the same thing more than once, in a slightly differing way if possible. The third is that, given the ongoing boycott, there isn’t much opportunity to write about the football we don’t get to see.

Anyhow, for the sake of focussing on something completely different for once, this week the spotlight will be on the changing patterns of sponsorship in the game and the attendant issues, part of what Simon Critchley calls ‘the most basic and profound contradiction in football.’ He points out in his book What We Think About When We Think About Football that ‘its form is association, socialism, the sociability and collective action of players and fans and yet its material substrate is money: dirty money, often from highly questionable, under-scrutinized sources.’

This week Paddy Power has been fined £2.2 million for allowing laundered money to be gambled through its website and although the FA ended its commercial partnership with Ladbrokes last year in the wake of the Joey Barton betting scandal, the EFL has extended its sponsorship deal with SkyBet through to 2024. This season Blackpool FC has engaged with Simon Rigby’s BetSid company for first-team shirt sponsorship. Of course Blackpool has been sponsored by Pointbet in the past so it’s not a new phenomenon but the extent to which betting companies have become involved in football sponsorship in recent years is something remarkable. This season, 9 out of 20 Premier League clubs have kit bearing betting company logos, as do 17 of the 24 Championship sides. It’s almost endemic. Whatever happened to cars, electronics and other industries and services as sponsors?

It comes at a time when football clubs are finding it increasingly hard to attract sponsorship. Exactly why is that? In a recent survey 50% of Premier League and League One clubs said it was significantly more difficult, nearly 90% of League Two clubs said it had become very much harder and only the Championship clubs reported that finding sponsorship was actually easier now than in past seasons – which probably tallies neatly with the number of Championship clubs being sponsored by betting firms.

Experts in the field of problem gambling have been voicing concerns. Marc Etches, the chief executive of GambleAware, has said ‘I think we are at a tipping point in terms of the relationship between professional sports and gambling. We have a generation of fans who believe you have to bet on football to enjoy it and that is disturbing and concerning. The time is now for a much-needed debate about how we do this. Watching football and having a bet is becoming normalised but we’re not talking about it.’

The Premier League has declined to comment publicly on the issue, believing it is a commercial decision for the clubs.

An EFL spokesman conceded that sponsorship deals with gambling firms ‘make a significant contribution to the ongoing financial sustainability of professional football at all levels’ but said the league has agreed a memorandum of understanding with Sky Bet to ensure that relationship is ‘socially responsible’. The EFL has also launched a ‘responsible gambling’ campaign which will see players in all three divisions wearing new sleeve badges. The league is also updating its guidance to clubs on ‘responsible practices’ and supporting a Sky Bet initiative to visit each club to provide players with training on the potential risks associated with gambling. Does that sound like having one’s cake and eating it too?

More to the point are issues of legitimacy and mental health. When so much can be bet on during a game, the possibility of corruption and ‘fixing’ becomes so much more likely, as does the possibility of it becoming an escalating mental health issue for those with addictive personalities.

While football as a whole is growing more proactive in its approach to mental health issues (and the EFL has adopted MIND as its official charity partner), whatever one thinks about gambling as an activity, the alarming rise in gambling addictions is a huge cause for concern. Its victims are regularly found calling on charities like MIND and GambleAware for assistance.

It is no secret that Blackpool has areas of significant deprivation where instances of mental health problems are at their greatest. MIND is an excellent charity and it does sterling work in the town. If these were normal times at our football club, MIND would have benefitted from the proceeds of every replica kit sold by Blackpool FC. Given the impact of the ethical boycott, such revenue is hugely diminished. Therefore BST in conjunction with Six Stars has decided to donate the final charitable portion of monies raised by the sale of the alternative Blackpool shirt directly to the Lancashire branch of the MIND mental health charity. Earlier this month we were able to present them with a cheque for £3,333 on behalf of Blackpool supporters. They were extremely grateful and thanks go to all fans who by purchasing the alternative shirt helped to support BST’s charity work in this way.

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