VAR, dodgy tackles, suspicious haircuts and undoubtedly placing bets, all form the fabric of the controversial side of English football, a sport feverishly followed by not only millions in the UK, but also loved internationally. The gambling industry and the EFL’s mutually dependant relationship has long caused concern for many involved in the sport and the dangers of the bond have again dominated headlines this past month after the Italian Football Federation announced a 10-month ban given to Newcastle United player Sandro Tonali for illegal betting. The football world descended into a chorus of sympathy for Tonali and questions echoed over the morality of gambling’s front-row seat in the sport.
After Tonali’s last game for Newcastle United before his ban, the Italian midfielder walked a lap of honour around St James’ Park, surrounded by numerous placards and advertisements for Newcastle’s three betting sponsors. Tonali’s lengthy ban from worldwide football comes as a result of betting whilst he was a player at AC Milan, violating FIFA Code 26. After signing the Italian talent for £55m this summer, the suspension brings a real disappointment for Newcastle manager Eddie Howe and the club’s fans; yet it also reveals a personal struggle. Tonali’s agent, Guiseppe Riso, has spoken on his client’s gambling addiction with the Italian outlet Tuttomercatoweb, stating that “Sandro is now facing the most important battle, the one against gambling addiction, and he will win this one too.”
Tonali joins a growing list of current and ex-footballers who have been harmed by problem gambling. The inextricable link between gambling and the sport appears unavoidable whilst watching any game, from the colourful sponsors around the pitch to the celebrity-endorsed TV adverts at half time, to perhaps most outrageously the betting logos adorning team kits. Promotions of gambling are present in every aspect of the matchday experience, even the WIFI network, as fans connecting to the internet at Tottenham Hotspur’s White Hart Lane are barred from accessing any other betting website than William Hill, thanks to a lucrative deal between the betting company and the club.
According to The Big Step, a charity dedicated to kicking gambling out of football, a gambling brand is visible up to 89% of the time on BBC’s Match of the Day. In a recent statement on their website, they claimed that “incessant advertising makes our football grounds look like the Las Vegas strip, with the constant push to gamble infecting every bit of our national sport.”
Whilst betting culture has long been a part of sporting culture in the UK, gambling charities like Gamble Aware and The Big Step are expressing fears that increased advertisement in the digital age along with greater accessibility to gambling, is causing a national crisis of new addictions. The Big Step lamented their frustrations on X, posting a photo of Tonali after the whistle was blown on what was to be his final game of the season, commenting on the irony of a “footballer with a gambling addiction doing a lap of honour around the online casino adverts.” There is little surprise or shock felt by gambling charities at the predicament Tonali and Newcastle find themselves in, only a grim sense of inevitability.
Yet many would call into question, just how severe and widespread problem gambling is within the sport, with the EFL advocating against a blanket ban on advertisements. The EFL, currently sponsored by Sky Bet, commissioned Professor Ian McHale of the University of Liverpool to conduct a report into gambling advertisements within the game. The report’s findings argued that problem gambling had halved from affecting 6% of UK adults to 3%, between the years of 2010-2018.
Whilst some insist there is little correlation between the advertisements and addictions, others simply believe the financial loss of banning these advertisements to be too costly for the EFL. A gambling sponsorship ban could cost the EFL up to £40m a year, with many clubs throughout the divisions of English football heavily relying on gambling advertising financially. A total of 8 Premier League teams this season have betting companies as their main shirt sponsors, and the percentage of gambling shirt sponsors has never dropped below 35% in the past 9 seasons. Such deals are extremely lucrative to clubs, with West Ham’s deal with Betway worth £10m a season.
Though a groundbreaking agreement was reached in April by the Premier League, banning gambling sponsors on the front of shirts by the 2026-27 season, there is still an opportunity for gambling promotions to be dotted around the stadium and on the shirt sleeves. Football’s financial reliance upon the gambling industry is startling, however, it is questionable whether the majority of fans would still be happy to see it dwindle in the moral fight, if it means letting players, or even their clubs go.
Viewed as an underdog in the Premier League in both financial and footballing terms, recently promoted Luton Town have taken a strong stance against gambling sponsorship within the sport. They are the only club within the top flight to partner with the gambling charity Gambling with Lives and The Big Step, and the club’s CEO Gary Sweet claims the club has repeatedly turned down sponsorship offers. There is of course, as the EFL warn, a financial risk with such a choice, as the club believe they have lost out on between £2-3m this season by opting out. Luton’s recent success without the financial backing of gambling support, however, seems to suggest a viable and stable future possible for clubs who intend to distance themselves and the sport from gambling.
The chorus of concern generated by Tonali’s predicament appears to have made little impact upon the fabric of the game, as UEFA announced last week that the European Championship would welcome its very first betting sponsor ever for the 2024 tournament in Germany. UEFA’s deal with the online gambling brand Betano signifies a relationship between the sport on an international level and gambling, which is only getting stronger. Tonali will be unable to represent his country at the tournament as his ban will be ongoing, which is an irony that gambling charities believe speaks volumes.
It is hard to predict the odds of whether gambling’s presence within the sport will lessen as charities and groups call for a safer and greatly reduced influence of gambling within the world’s most watched league. Whilst Tonali’s alleged gambling problem has ignited concern in the footballing world for players’ safety, it is still left to see who is concerned about the young generation of fans raised upon a game shadowed by gambling.
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