If certain advertising campaigns around the world are to be believed, it is soon going to be almost impossible to enjoy watching a sporting event without having a bet on the outcome. That seems to be the nub and the gist for the bookmakers who are falling over themselves to persuade sports fans to part with their hard-earned cash to create an extra frisson when watching a sporting contest. “Be a fan by all means,” they seem to be saying, “but wouldn’t it be more exciting if there was money at stake?”
It’s supposed to add to the fun and enhance the overall experience. They are trying to turn gambling into something social, relaxed and convivial. It’s not.
Odds and sods
Bookies and online gambling companies are now focusing on and targeting young, impressionable people in the way that tobacco companies have done in the past, and that drug pushers always do – looking for the next generation of potential addicts and ensuring the sustainability of a business model that is even more distasteful than purveying chocolate-covered cockroaches. Most try to lure punters into their web with the initial offer of a ‘free bet’. They will actually give you money to have your first crack (tasteless pun in – tended) and are sincerely hoping that you will get hooked as easily as a catfish on Prozac whose wife and fingerlings have just left him for a haddock. Catfish are the ‘sluts’ (non-gender-specific term, to my mind) of the piscine world, just in case you were wondering, and they’re renowned for being easy to catch and falling for every line. The ‘gift bet’, the bookmakers hope, will be enough to get anyone looking for a bargain started on the slippery, downward slope towards habitual gambling – one that can lead to strained relationships, financial disaster, crime, and even suicide. I’m not suggesting that this is the bookies’ intention, but data show that it can be the end result.
Getting a fix
Gambling is highly addictive, and ‘problem’ or ‘pathological’ gambling is a psychiatric disorder. It’s all about impulse control, and when the individual can no longer control the impulse to gamble, problems occur. When people win money, it’s reflected in a pattern of brain activity that involves the striatum – a cluster of neurons in the forebrain that processes food, sexual stimuli and…drugs. It’s a reward centre, and goes into overdrive when people win money, as it does when people take drugs. Gambling addiction and drug addiction share many of the same neural processes, and both are, arguably, equally deleterious.
Winning as a gambler creates a natural high, and the build-up and anticipation contribute to the entire process, which can easily become addictive. This doesn’t stop gambling companies from jumping on to whatever sporting bandwagon they can imagine in their expansive marketing and business development brain trust exercises, constantly looking for new ways to entice the saps and the weak-minded into their money-making and highly lucrative web. No sport is safe. You can bet on almost anything these days, and it’s never been easier to contribute to the bookmakers’ burgeoning bottom lines.
Let’s look at the example of the English football. We all know that the English Premier League is the most watched competition in the world’s most popular sport. Currently, nine out of the 20 English Premier League teams are sponsored by betting companies, while in the second tier of English football, the Championship, 17 out of the 24 teams’ players have gambling companies’ logos on their shirts every time they sashay onto the field in front of the cameras. Sponsorship is important for the financial well-being of clubs. Fans realise this, and advertising lends a veneer of respectability, as though there has been a measure of quality control in the messages conveyed. Who knows, maybe there are football fans out there who feel that by having a punt with the team’s sponsors, they are helping to keep the club afloat, bolstering the coffers that will be required, at some point, to buy the player who will ‘make a difference’. The association of football and sports betting is now ubiquitous – it’s difficult to even find a football-related website that doesn’t have links to online sports betting – and for many in the UK, this is a major concern.
There are an estimated 430,000 ‘problem gamblers’, with a further two million ‘at risk’, according to a recent UK Gambling Commission report, and an even more recent study has revealed that the number of children classed as having gambling issues has quadrupled to more than 50,000 in the last two years. The UK gambling industry is worth more than £14 billion a year, so it’s not difficult to see why bookmakers are broadening their horizons, and hoping to sustain their businesses by welcoming in the next generation of punters and expanding on the number of sports on offer to ‘have fun’ with.
East beats west
Asia constitutes the world’s largest gambling market, which is not surprising, considering the population. Certain countries have put in place tight controls on internet gambling, but as everyone knows, there are always loopholes, and it seems that anyone, anywhere, can put their stakes and eggs in a basket if they’re determined enough. In the Islamic world, betting is forbidden – for a variety of reasons. It distracts the individual from worship; it’s (potentially) reward for something that’s not honest labour, and it’s practised in dens of iniquity. These are all solid arguments, and devout Christians would almost certainly concur.
As we know, however, many Asians, whose association with luck is inextricably linked to good fortune and success, are very keen gamblers, invoking pre-destiny and even belief in numerology as pretexts for having a punt, and it hasn’t escaped the notice of the bookies and the casino conglomerates. And seeing as we’re on the subject, and leaving myself open to censure, the question of why are there always Asians involved in match fixing syndicates has to be asked. Whoever they may be, and whatever rock they may currently be hiding under, they will probably be pleased to learn that there will be more sports on offer when it comes to ‘ingame’ betting and, therefore, more opportunities for ‘spot fixing’.
Par for the course
In late November 2018, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson faced off in a ‘winner takes all’ US$9 million golf game imaginatively entitled ‘The Match’. They played at the Shadow Creek Golf Course, an 8.4-mile drive (no pun intended) from…wait for it…Las Vegas. It was a sporting showdown – one on one, mano a mano – between two of the world’s golfing greats; at least it would have been fifteen years ago, but no one was going to let that detail compromise the marketing hype. It was, according to Mickelson, “an opportunity for us to bring golf to the masses,” but the event was only watchable as a ‘pay-preview’ event, and no tickets were issued to the public, being reserved for VIPs and corporate high-flyers. Many suggested that watching two incredibly rich people getting potentially even richer in a self-congratulatory game of ‘Aren’t We Awesome’ was outrageous and in bad taste.
At the preceding press conference, Mickelson bet US$100,000 that he would birdie the first hole, and Woods quickly doubled it. It’s true that both agreed to donate their winnings to charity, but the world witnessed two role models (notwithstanding Tiger’s chequered past) gambling in public, making it…cool. What kind of example does that set for the young and the impressionable? The event didn’t pan out as the organisers would have liked. There were technical problems with the streaming, so most people got to watch it for free (score one for the peasants) while the golf itself was unspectacular, and there were fewer high-stakes, in-game bets between the players than expected. It was, however, a sign of things to come, with golf about to get the ‘football treatment’ that will enable people to bet throughout a game/match/round. It’s been very lucrative in football – you can bet on the number of corners, throwins, yellow cards, substitutions made… anything – and I have a feeling that you’ll soon be able to do something similar in golf. Because we need more things to risk the rent on.
And then there’s ‘fixing’ to consider – something that wouldn’t take place without gambling. When you place a bet, winning is the goal. When you know what the result will be, winning is a piece of cake – slices of which have been misappropriated from those not ‘in the know’. Match fixing in football for monetary gain dates back to the late 19th century, and while now stringently policed, still goes on, according to insiders. As long as there is money to be made, it is unlikely to vanish forever, and includes most of the world’s major sports in one form or another. From the gambling perspective, it’s something of a pyrrhic victory when you place a bet on the team that you know is going to win, but for these people it’s not about the tension and excitement you get from an unknown outcome in which you are invested, it’s simply about making money. It will always be at the expense of others; tantamount to ‘insider trading’ with sports instead of stock markets. Gambling in this case has led to insidious criminality, with mafia-style gangs taking care of all aspects of the process – from bribing or threatening players and their families, all the way through to making the markets that most benefit those who know what’s going to happen before it’s even happened. It has created a morass of greed and moral turpitude, but it wouldn’t even exist if gambling on sporting events hadn’t achieved the idealised level of respectability as a provider of good, clean fun that we have all been asked to swallow.
Bet on your life
I’m sorry if this all comes across as a trifle sanctimonious. I don’t begrudge those who have a flutter every now and again, for a bit of a laugh, but the descent into a gambling addiction with all its consequences can be steep and frightening.
I believe that the sports betting companies need to take greater responsibility in terms of protecting the vulnerable, rather than targeting them. They won’t of course (unless they’re absolutely forced to – plans are afoot to limit advertising at sporting events in some countries) because they’re making tons of money. They’re doing so at the expense of people attracted to the ‘something for nothing’ ethos and not having to put as much physical/mental effort into making a buck, as you would have to do in, say, a job. As a species, we are programmed to take risks. It’s instinctive, and something that has enabled us to survive. For our ancestors, every day was a battle for survival, and even hunting was a risk if the hunter was determined to end up as the eater and not the eatee. We seem to have found a way of replacing the risk of survival with the risk of financial ruin – which may or may not amount to the same thing in this day and age – in gambling, a fact well known to casino owners and bookmakers across the globe.
Everyone’s a winner/loser
Betting is great…when you win. When you start draining bank accounts, re-mortgaging the house, and raiding the kids’ piggy banks in order to make a bet when someone has recommended a ‘sure thing’ and you really need to recoup recent losses, the prognosis is not positive. The companies responsible should be just that; responsible, and warn of the dangers in a serious, meaningful way – not by archly alluding to the fact that none of their clients would be stupid enough to gamble more than they can afford. That’s just lip service. ‘Gamble in moderation’ should be the mantra, if you have to gamble at all. And this is exactly what the bookies don’t want you to do.