Leeds United goalkeeper Kiko Casilla sporting a shirt with 32Red sponsorship branding. Dave Howarth/PA Archive/PA Images

Gambling needs tobacco-like regulation in sports advertising and sponsorship

Not that long ago UK sports fans could indulge their passions by watching the rugby league Silk Cut Challenge Cup, one day cricket’s Benson and Hedges Cup, or the Embassy World Snooker Championship. Not to mention the excitement and glamour of cars branded to look like Marlboro packets on wheels being driven on Formula 1 racetracks around the world.

McLaren F1 car branded to look like a Marlboro cigarette packet. Dan74/Shutterstock

Cigarette branding was once integral to sport and a crucial marketing strategy for the industry. But research into the powerful impact of advertising these products – particularly on young people’s awareness, attitudes and intentions to use them – led to legislative changes that ended the relationship between tobacco and sport.

The gap in the market left by the cigarette industry has now been filled by the gambling industry. The Challenge Cup is now the Coral Challenge Cup, and football fans can watch teams take part in competitions such as the Sky Bet Championship. Football, in particular, has seen a rise in commercial arrangements with gambling companies, not just competition sponsorship but stadium and shirt sponsorship, too. In fact, in the 2019-20 Premier League, half the clubs have betting companies as shirt sponsors.

Warrington fans celebrate winning the Coral Challenge Cup Final at Wembley Stadium, August 2019. Paul Harding/PA Wire/PA Images

In the UK, gambling-related TV and radio advertising was banned until the 2005 Gambling Act came into force, which relaxed the rules. Since then, spending on gambling-related advertising has increased significantly, with UK betting firms spending £328m on direct advertising, such as adverts in commercial breaks in sports programmes, in 2018 alone. This figure is almost certainly an underestimate of the total amount spent on marketing as it doesn’t include online advertising or indirect advertising, such as sponsorship logos on shirts and stadium hoardings.

New evidence is beginning to reveal the negative effect of gambling adverts. Research from Australia suggests that advertising exposure through “push marketing”, such as promotional text messages, uses techniques to reduce the perception of risk – for instance, by showing gamblers winning – and can result in them betting for longer and losing more money, while believing that these bets are less risky.

Gambling and young people

Perhaps more worrying is the potential impact of this advertising on people (under-18s) not old enough to gamble legally. Evidence suggests that gambling adverts on TV and social media capture their attention.

An Australian study found that not only could young people recall the names of sports betting brands, they were also able to describe distinctive features of brands (such as colour) and accurately match brands with promotions. Similar results have been found in the UK, with children and teenagers, age eight to 16, identified as “super-fans” – who watch a lot of football on TV – being more likely to be able to match sponsor brands to club logos.

The potential effect of this on subsequent behaviour is worrying. A fifth of the young people (age 11-16) in the Australian study indicated that they wanted to try gambling. In Britain, it was reported that 14% of children aged 11-16 had gambled in the past week, with 1.7% of those aged 11 -16 classified as “problem” gamblers and 2.2% as “at risk” of problem gambling.

Our latest research shows that for young adults the strongest motive to gamble is increased excitement. In televised sporting events, gambling adverts ramp up the feeling of excitement and give the perception that gambling is a fundamental part of watching sports.

Concerns about the exposure of young people to gambling adverts have already and led to voluntary industry commitments, such as the new “whistle-to-whistle” ban on gambling advertising during televised sports (except horse racing) before 9pm. But embedded promotions, such as stadium sponsorship, league sponsorship, promotional logos on team uniforms and pitch signage, are not covered by this measure and so remain visible to viewers.

Critics of embedded promotion are most concerned with its subtle and deceptive assimilation into live screen time. From this perspective, the promotional intent is concealed, as the gambling-endorsing advertisements are carefully integrated into the spectator’s emotional experience.

This was perhaps no more aptly demonstrated than by high-profile former England captain Wayne Rooney signing for Derby County – an English second-tier club sponsored by the betting brand “32Red” – and being assigned the number 32 shirt. A move the sports minister, Nigel Adams, called “very crafty”.

We are currently researching the social impact of gambling and looking at developing screening measures to identify people at risk of gambling harm. Existing screening measures, used by addiction and recovery services, are ineffective and open to misinterpretation. A consequence of this is the possibility of the under-representation of gambling harm in the population and the perception that “problem gamblers” are a tiny minority. Gambling has become increasingly advanced and accessible and this potentially puts many more people at risk than previously indicated.

As global research has established the problems that gambling can cause, the UK government now need to impose strict tobacco-like restrictions on gambling adverts, and break the perception that gambling and sport are integral to each other.