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"A bookie in your pocket": how tech changed the dynamics of sports betting

Why gambling apps and in-play markets need tighter regulation. 

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Chris Gilham’s gambling habit started small: office sweepstakes, predicting a few football results among friends, raffles, and so on.

But after one big win of “around £300”, things escalated. The ready availability of gambling technology, chiefly bookmakers’ mobile apps that did “little to no background checks on users”, he says, sped up the journey from casual flutter to full-on addiction.

Now in recovery, Gilham has not placed a bet since 2017. There were times, he recalls, when he would be “glued” to his phone for hours. Convenience enabled and encouraged him to place “silly” bets on markets of which he had little knowledge, “like a bet on some Croatian second-division team".

The addiction soon compromised his enjoyment of sport. “Before long, I wasn’t even bothered about watching football or cricket, or whatever,” he explains. “I was just checking the odds, seeing what I could bet on next. I went to Trent Bridge [to watch England play cricket] and was betting on every over. I barely looked up [from my phone].” 

At his lowest ebb, battling depression and alcoholism, as well as gambling addiction, Gilham was “suicidal” and in “mountains” of debt. “I had actually placed a big bet, which if I’d have won, I intended to leave the money behind to look after my kids, because I planned to kill myself,” he says. According to research by the charity Gambling With Lives, between 4 and 11 per cent of UK suicides each year can be linked to betting addiction. As it happened, Gilham, a father of two, lost that bet and sought help. “I’m still here, thankfully.” 

Gilham, who now hosts a podcast – All Bets Are Off – aimed at others with difficult experiences with gambling, does not absolve himself of responsibility. “I chose to do it, and I’ve got to deal with that,” he says. But he does not feel that gambling companies are as “up front” as they could be about the risks attached to them. 

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The relationship between betting and sport in the UK is well established. Football has particularly strong ties to gambling. According to analysis by Spotlight, just under half (43 per cent) of the clubs in the top two divisions in England are sponsored by bookmakers as of the current season. Gambling companies have a robust advertising presence in stadiums and on TV and radio. And the development of gambling technology – mainly smartphone apps – means that it has never been easier to place a bet. 

This year, the first coronavirus lockdown led to the suspension of live sport in the UK for several months. During that time, betting on sport, as well as the number of people visiting physical bookie shops, predictably declined. But several gambling companies, including Ladbrokes Coral and 888Casino, reported a surge in the use of alternative products such as online poker or roulette. 

Sport in the UK has now largely returned, but crowds are still not allowed in stadiums due to social distancing protocols. A survey by market research company Ipsos found that since the restart of Premier League football in late June, 27 per cent of sports fans were betting more than they had done before the first lockdown, while 62 per cent had placed at least one online bet specifically on football in the previous month. 

Research carried out on behalf of the charity GambleAware by the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA) has suggested that there could be a particular increase in in-play betting – that is, on live events as they are happening – with more games being televised because of the pandemic. The FSA’s survey found that 73 per cent of respondents would be more likely to gamble from home, in general, because it is more convenient than visiting a physical bookie. Over a third admitted that not being able to attend matches could lead to them betting out of boredom.  

The politics around gambling tech, though, predates the pandemic. While internet-based casino or card games were available in the 1990s, Apple first allowed betting apps to be downloaded from the Apple Store for its mobile devices in 2011. In 2017, Google followed suit and made gambling apps available via the Google Play Store for phones or tablets using its Android operating system. 

The Gambling Commission, the government watchdog for the sector, published its annual report in February. The commission found that almost half (47 per cent) of UK adults – close to 25 million people – had placed at least one type of bet in the preceding four weeks.

Of that figure, the report found that 50 per cent did so using a mobile device – up 6 per cent from the previous year. Younger age groups were more likely to have gambled online using a phone, with 76 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds and 72 per cent of 24 to 34-year-olds having done so. The report also found that of all online gamblers in the UK, 56 per cent have an account with at least two bookmakers. 

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Both Newcastle United and West Ham United are sponsored by gambling firms. Credit: Catherine Ivill/Getty Iimages.

For professor Mark Griffiths, a chartered psychologist and director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, the prevalence of betting apps has “fundamentally changed” the dynamics of betting, and especially betting on sport. 

There is significant research, he says, into the correlation between high-frequency gambling and the risk of gambling addiction. “You are unlikely to see someone addicted to a biweekly national lottery, because that’s a form of gambling where you only get your result on certain days. There is a big delay between risk and reward. But when you play a slot machine in a pub, for example, you might gamble ten or 12 times a minute, and event frequency is linked to the risk of problem gambling.”

Griffiths says betting apps have helped wagers on sport to transition from a discontinuous form of gambling to a continuous one. In the past, bookies may have been open for only ten hours a day. Now, thanks to smartphones, “people can effectively walk around with a bookie in their pocket”. 

In-play markets – being able to bet on how many corner kicks might be taken in a football match, for example – have created a product that “simply did not exist a few years ago”, Griffiths adds. “It used to be the case that you would place a football bet at the weekend, hand over your slip to the bookie and go away for a couple of hours. Either you’d win or you wouldn’t.” 

Read more: When it comes to gambling, the Conservatives are right about Labour’s legacy

In-play betting, however, has led to “something like 50 to 100 individual bets you might be able to place on a single game”, he says. With the amount of football there is on TV, particularly at the moment, Griffiths points out, “you could find yourself watching four or five matches back to back”. That, in turn, could lead to “around ten hours of continuous betting”. 

Placing a bet online, or via an app, is not like placing one in person. “The online medium is in and of itself a disinhibited medium,” Griffiths says. Hard cash being replaced by a “virtual representation of money” causes people to lower their psychological guard. “There is a reason that most casinos will have you convert your money into chips. They don’t feel real,” he explains. “If you’re losing chips, it’s not lie you’re seeing money disappear. Likewise, virtual money, or betting credits online… it doesn’t feel the same.”

Another key difference is how globalised gambling has become. Via an app, you can bet on events in different countries and time zones. Consider that at the time of writing, several UK bookmakers are accepting wagers on Major League Soccer in the United States, Chile’s Primera Division, Ecuador’s Serie A or the Hong Kong Sapling Cup – all of which will kick off after most people in the UK have gone to bed.

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While other forms of gambling, such as lotteries, slots or roulette wheels, are rooted in chance, betting on sport can complement the thrill of feeling lucky with an illusion of control.

Gilham explains that there is a false sense of “skill” attached to wagers on sport. “If someone picks a winning team at the weekend, they might feel vindicated. They’ll feel like their hunch, their research [into injuries or form], has paid off,” he says. “Of course, that’s not really the case, because they don’t actually impact the result, but when you’re addicted, you don’t think so clearly.”

James Grimes, another recovering gambling addict, agrees that the scope and scale of available markets means there is “never a shortage” of things to bet on. Grimes, who has not placed a bet since 2018, now leads Gambling With Lives’s The Big Step programme, which campaigns for a ban on gambling advertising and sponsorship within football. 

“I had no interest in or knowledge of Vietnamese or Peruvian football,” he admits, “but the opportunity [to bet on them] was there. And I had access to them via my phone. It was so easy – too easy, even.” 

These concerns are shared by Professor Henrietta Bowden-Jones, director of the National Problem Gambling Clinic, who claims that the pervasiveness of the issue can be linked to the “gamblification of sport, especially football”. According to the Gambling Commission, around 0.7 per cent of – or nearly 400,000 – UK adults can be classified as problem gamblers.

“In-play betting has made matters significantly worse,” Bowden-Jones says. “It has driven gambling to a whole new sphere I would have never imagined possible when I founded the clinic 13 years ago.”  

Gilham dislikes the term “responsible gambling,” as it places “too much onus” on the customer, who Bowden-Jones highlights may already have “poor impulse control”. While many bookmakers do have deposit-limiting or time-out functions built into their apps, the majority of these are entirely optional or – as Gilham puts it – “easily ignored”. The most recent Gambling Commission review found that over half (53 per cent) of UK gamblers were unaware that these self-exclusion facilities on betting apps existed, while just one in five had actually read the terms and conditions of their bookie of choice. 

Actual deposit or stake limits, as in those set by the bookmakers themselves rather than the customer, can vary in the UK. Some bookmakers cap deposits online at £10,000, while others allow users to put up to £100,000 into their accounts, a spokesperson for the Gambling Commission confirmed to Spotlight via email. Gilham points out that bookies have “no idea” how much a gambler earns. “They don’t know whether the player can afford to lose what they’re putting in, and maybe they should.” 

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Apps have made placing a bet easier than ever. Credit: Paul Ellis/Getty Images.

David Nandi, who previously worked in data analytics for a major UK betting firm, says gambling apps are designed to keep people “engaged”. The cash-out function – which allows users to settle a bet early if it is already winning or close to winning, but for a slightly smaller return – means that people will “have to keep checking” their phone or tablet. 

In those “windows”, Nandi says, bookies often peddle “boosted” odds and offers on other in-play markets, although recent guidance from the Gambling Commission has demanded that this practice should be significantly cut back during the coronavirus pandemic. What constitutes as significant is, of course, debatable.

Cashing out on a bet can offer gamblers a chance to recoup some of their money if the bet they placed is losing. But in Nandi’s experience, it is uncommon for gamblers to cut their losses. “Usually people let the bet ride,” he says. And Gilham confirms that he “barely ever” cashed out. 

Read more: Gambling has always been a part of sport

Many bookies’ attitudes and approaches towards problem gambling, Nandi says, are clouded by short-termism. Bookies will do the “bare minimum” to keep regulators happy, but many don’t realise that tackling the issue is important for more reasons than simply mitigating bad PR. 

“Problem gambling is a public health issue, and gambling companies need to do more to make sure people are safe,” Nandi says, adding that problem gambling is not a “sustainable” way of supporting the industry. “If companies fail to regulate themselves effectively and responsibly, by making sure that people don’t gamble to excess, then whatever short-term benefits might come from one player will be massively outweighed by the extreme regulations that come in afterwards.”

Grimes adds that too often, problem gambling is viewed only through the lens of its extremities. Rather, he says, the issue “exists on a spectrum… Problem gambling doesn’t just mean the addict who is betting and losing thousands. It could still be a problem if a person on universal credit is betting and losing a tenner. This is why background checks are so important.”

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Since 2019, a whistle-to-whistle ban has prevented gambling-related commercials to be shown in the five minutes preceding a live TV broadcast of a sporting event and the five minutes after it. But that still leaves many hours of the day as fair game, and the limitations do not extend to social media or betting websites. 

According to GambleAware, betting companies have increased their total marketing spend by 56 per cent since 2014, with five times more spent online than on TV adverts. The charity estimates that the UK gambling industry spends £747m on direct online marketing, £301m through “affiliates” such as tipster websites, £149m through social media, and £234m on TV.

Grimes calls the whistle-to-whistle ban “tokenistic”, highlighting that unless shirt sponsors or pitch-side promotions are also removed, gambling is still very “present” in any live sporting event shown on TV. 

The relationship between sport and gambling in the UK is “toxic”, he says, and gambling has become normalised as part of the spectator experience. “Young people, who account for around 25 per cent of the Premier League’s audience… are growing up watching football and thinking that betting is just part of the game.”


SkyBet is the main sponsor of the second tier of English football, the Championship. Credit: Paul Ellis/Getty Images.

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Although the Gambling Commission does not view the Covid-19 pandemic as necessarily a catalyst for more problem gambling, it has noted a shift in the market towards more online products. Peter Watton, an analyst at matched-betting software firm Oddsmonkey, says that trends in betting on sport are likely to depend on how widely and often events are broadcast. 

“If people were to be stuck at home but organised sporting events were to continue – unlike during the first UK lockdown [from March through June] – there could be increased gambling numbers,” he says. Presently, all Premier League football fixtures, for example, are being televised. 

A spokesperson for the Betting and Gaming Council, an industry association, told Spotlight over email: “There is no evidence that there has been a rise in problem gambling during lockdown. Indeed, the Gambling Commission’s recent National Strategic Assessment report stated that lockdown had not seen ‘a significant number of consumers take up gambling and overall the number of consumers gambling dropped during the initial lockdown phase.’

“Nevertheless, one problem gambler is one too many, and we fully support the government’s forthcoming Gambling Review and look forward to working with ministers to drive further change in our industry.”

But rather than “waiting for problems to arise”, Gilham says, regulators should be more proactive. “It is not that much of a stretch to say that people bored at home might be open to gambling… People are desperate for money at the moment,” he says. “There’s a lot of football being shown on TV, and it is very easy to download an app and start betting. Going back into lockdown, regulators have to think carefully about what they can do.” 

And when it comes to the tech, there must also be a solution. “If bookies have the technology to make a live, in-play bet on a football match happening halfway across the world at 2am,” Gilham argues, “then they are perfectly capable of sending a nudge notification to someone who has been logged into their account for several hours, losing bet after bet, asking whether or not they should be continuing.”

Several major UK gambling firms did not respond to Spotlight’s requests for comment.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman