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13 February 2019

Gambling has always been a part of sport – but today, football seems a mere branch of the betting industry

 Almost one in five adverts during last year’s World Cup were for betting firms. Nearly 60 per cent of clubs in England’s top two divisions have the name of a gambling firm on their shirts.

By Hunter Davies

One of my jobs as a boy in the 1940s and 1950s was to tune the radio to the BBC Home Service and Sports Report every Saturday at five o’clock, wait for that familiar signature tune, then write down the football results as they came through.

Next I had to check my father’s coupon to see if he had won anything on the pools. He did the Treble Chance on Littlewoods every week – or I did, filling in the forms for him, staking a few pennies on trying to predict which three games would end in a score draw. He never won nowt. “Not a blooming sausage,” he would yell. He was confined to his bed, suffering from MS. His hands shook. The pools was a highlight of his miserable week.

But I hated it. He would shout at me, as if it was my fault that none of his predictions had ended in draws. I’ve never bet on anything in my life. I don’t need the money, thank you, nor the adrenalin rush, nor the diversion. Today I find myself shouting at the TV when that awful ham-cockney actor leers and slavers menacingly at me to “bet responsibly”. Others scream at me to get a bet on – now! – and yell about how it will enhance my enjoyment of the game, to have money on the next goal, corner, free kick or yellow card. Which, of course, is total bollocks. The game is the thing. Not the betting.

It often seems today that football has become a mere branch of the betting industry. It pumps billions into the game – and takes trillions out. Almost one in five of all adverts during last year’s World Cup were for betting firms. Nearly 60 per cent of clubs in England’s top two divisions have the name of a gambling firm on their shirts. I find most of the names are meaningless words or numbers; it was only when I looked them up that I discovered which are betting firms.

Something called M88 is on Bournemouth’s shirts, LaBa360 is on Burnley’s, ManBetX on Crystal Palace’s, SportPesa on Everton’s, OPE Sports on Huddersfield’s, Fun88 on Newcastle’s, Betway on West Ham’s and W88 on Wolves’. Dafabet – which until now I had been reading as Daftbet – is on Fulham’s.

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Betting on games has existed since the beginning of sport, with prize-fighting and horse-racing. Football pools originated in 1887, when the Athletics Journal – purely as a circulation booster – offered readers two guineas to guess three results. Rival mags offered bigger prizes. The bookies moved in, sensing there was money to be made.

The first standalone football pools – as opposed to those offered by a  newspaper – began in the 1920s. By 1930, more people were filling in football pools than going to games. The big battle was between Littlewoods and Vernons. Littlewoods used to fly an aeroplane over London with a streamer boasting “LITTLEWOODS ABOVE ALL”. The best-known winner was Viv Nicholson, who, when her husband won £152,000 in 1961, declared she would “spend, spend, spend”.

Postwar, the pools employed 30,000 people – more than all the football clubs put together. Football was pissed off that the pools were making more money – and contributing nothing. It argued that the football fixtures were copyright and the pools should pay to use them. After a long legal tussle, football won.

Today, betting on football has been totally revolutionised by modern technology. No need to fill in coupons and post them off – anyone can bet instantly on their mobile phone.

Football gains little from the trillions spent on betting on its games. But the rise in gambling addiction could curtail the betting shops’ powers. It is estimated there are 430,000 problem gamblers in the UK, with children becoming increasingly exposed, which has at last alerted politicians to the issue. Big gambling companies now appear to have agreed to remove gambling adverts during games, though gambling on football will go on. Forever.

Humans. Don’t you despair? I do, being self-righteous, with no vices. Now, where is that bottle of Beaujolais I promised myself at the end of this column? 

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This article appears in the 13 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The revolution that fuelled radical Islam