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Blemishing the Beautiful Game: Analysing the need for Reform in Sports Betting Advertisement/Gaming


In the latest article for The Legal Pitch, Mollie Bailey Hammerton analyses the evolution of sports betting legislation and the current suggested reforms regarding the advertisement of betting adverts during sporting events. Co-Founder Nathan Davis examines how sporting video games, like FIFA, are exposing children to unregulated gambling and how reform can help stem the next gambling epidemic.


Gambling Advertisements in Football: Time for Reform?


There are increasing calls to implement a ban on advertisements promoting betting and gambling in the football industry. The proposals are being advanced by a group of cross-party MPs’. The demands come almost a year after the gambling industry introduced a voluntary ban on betting advertisements during sports programmes.

Advertising and sponsorship are integral to both football and this multi-million-pound industry. Yet, the increasingly strong affiliation between football and betting comes at a heavy cost for all parties if it is not properly regulated. Therefore, is it time to look at the impact of football on the UK's betting and gambling industry?

This article will outline:

  • The relationship between football and advertising

  • The history of betting and gambling advertisements in football

  • Tightening the restrictions on what is permitted to be advertised in football

  • Are reforms on gambling and betting advertisements necessary?

  • FIFA gambling comparison


(Image courtesy of www.change.org.uk)



The Relationship between Football and Advertising


In the early 1900s, the commercialisation of football began, and popular brands began to promote themselves at major events. Such events provided a platform for brands to rapidly and effectively target audiences of all ages and backgrounds. Today, advertisements consist of ‘anything and everything’ providing the company pays for the privilege.

The worldwide admiration for football is profound; arguably one of the most popular sports in the world to both watch and play. The UK is no exception. Earlier this year, the BBC revealed that the FA Cup Final has so far been the most-watched football match of 2020 with 8.2 million viewers.

The gambling industry currently spends in excess of £1.5 billion a year on advertising, which exist in the form of advertisements on TV, pitch-side perimeter boards, football kits and in matchday programmes.


With so many viewers to influence through various forms of expensive advertising, it is easy to see the potentially harmful and unsafe relationship between football and gambling.

The History of Betting and Gambling Advertisements in Football


Betting and gambling has been an enjoyable pastime for many for decades. Through the years, Parliament has introduced a number of acts to regulate and monitor the gambling climate in the UK. Some relevant Acts are discussed below.

The Betting and Gaming Act 1960 was introduced with the aim of removing gambling from the street and formalising it in places designed for that specific purpose. This was followed by the Gaming Act 1968. The Act was designed to liberalise gambling further, with the aim of removing criminality from the gambling industry. The Gaming Board for Great Britain was established and regulated the industry until 2005. In 2005 the Gambling Act was passed, and Gambling Commission now regulates all commercial gambling. The Act allowed advertisements involving gambling to be aired on television for the first time.

The main three aims of the Act are:

  • Preventing gambling from being a source of crime and disorder, being associated with crime or disorder, or being used to support crime

  • Ensuring that gambling is conducted in a fair and open way

  • Protecting children and other vulnerable people from being harmed or exploited by gambling

Since the Gambling Act 2005 was ratified, gambling advertising has increased exponentially, especially in football. To safeguard and ensure responsible gambling, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), in cooperation with the Gambling Commission and Ofcom, act to ensure all UK advertisements adhere to the Advertising Code of conduct.

They do so by:

  • Keeping gambling adverts away from TV programmes, websites and other media content that appeal more to people under 18 than to adults;

  • Ensuring that the content doesn’t exploit vulnerabilities associated with gambling

The 'Whistle to Whistle' Ban


In 2019, as a response to concerns for the prolific gambling advertisements on television, the gambling industry undertook a voluntary ban on advertising. The ban was introduced to deliberately coincide with the football season and involved no betting or gambling advertisements aired during a live game before the watershed time of 9pm. It is aptly termed the 'whistle to whistle' as the ban only took place five minutes before a match and five minutes after finish in an effort to prevent vulnerable viewers from being influenced by such content. But, how useful is this when viewers are likely to be tuned in outside of the five minute ban and gambling advertisements on pitch-side perimeter boards and football kits still remain rife?

In 2019, an advertisement by Sky Bet was banned in its entirety, and branded socially irrespirable by the ASA. And, more recently, gambling giants have become subject to sustained pressure to prevent advertisements causing toxic effects.


Tightening the restrictions on what is permitted to be advertised in football


Currently, in line with the 2005 Act, the only regulation on gambling advertisements is to protect children and other vulnerable people from being harmed or exploited by gambling.


A cross-party committee has looked into the relationship between football and the UK's gambling industry and the subsequent impact of this on all involved. The committee produced a report which included the recommendation that more should be done to prevent gambling-related harm and that urgent review of the Gambling Act is required. Part of this recommendation addresses the issue of gambling advertisements, with the committee proposing that no advertising relating to gambling should be permitted in or near sports venues or on television programmes.


In May 2020 a study by GambleAware, estimated that 5 million British people have experienced harm linked to gambling (problem gamblers themselves and those affected by it).

The exposure to betting and gambling in football may be considered too excessive, with advertisements emerging on any small vacant space in football grounds and on television, in a bid to gain customers.


Are Reforms on Betting and Gambling Advertisements Necessary?


There are calls to implement reforms to the gambling and betting industry associated with football. While, there remains reluctance towards a total ban of gambling advertisements, the proposals would like to implement tighter advertisement regulations.


Whilst the negative factors of gambling advertisements have been discussed, there are some advantages too. Advertising is essential to any industry to make customer contact to promote goods and services. They also provide a safe way to promote the regulated market leaders and offer guidance to gamble safely. But the question is, how do advertisers strike a balance between promoting their business and protecting viewers?

A previous analogous precedent can be considered here; the ban on the majority of smoking advertisements from 2003. It could be suggested that smoking produces harm in similar ways to gambling - so is it time the football industry followed suit in banning gambling advertisements?


Professor Jim Orford (Professor of Clinical & Community Psychology) stated, “The precautionary principle should prevail here. Prevention of harm should take precedence over other considerations. The minimum change that is needed to protect children and young people is a ban on any gambling promotion which is especially likely to be seen or heard by under-18s.” While he did not agree with a complete ban, he suggested any new legislation should be tailored towards addressing the advertising regulations for gambling.


While there is substantial medical evidence demonstrating the dangers and harms associated with smoking, there are currently little investigations that provide the same level of dangers and harms associated with gambling.


In a report by the House of Lords, 'Gambling Harm—Time for Action,' the Law Lords stated that the 'Government should commission independent research to establish the links between gambling advertising and gambling-related harm for both adults and children.'

While betting and gambling advertisements are now synonymous with football, it seems that they will remain part of the game. But should advertisements in football be reformed to become more customer considerate?


FIFA packs, micro currencies and next gambling epidemic?


Understanding loot boxes and microtransactions within games:


The rapid rise of the video game industry has presented a new platform for sport-based gambling. Video game manufacturers are facing increasing scrutiny for their use of microtransactions and ‘loot boxes’ within their games. The House of Lords Select Committee report on the Social and Economic Impact of the Gambling Industry explained loot boxes as ‘a virtual item which can be redeemed to receive a further randomised virtual item’. Whilst a number of high-profile game makers have been criticised for this, EA Sports have received some of the heaviest backlash. EA sports are responsible for producing hugely successful sporting video games, such as Madden, UFC and FIFA.


The latter of these is EA’s most lucrative franchise with FIFA sales comprising 14% of the company’s net revenue. Much of FIFA’s commercial success originates from its Ultimate Team mode, which was implemented into the game in 2009. To this day Ultimate Team remains EA Sport’s most successful game mode, with reports in 2019 stating that Ultimate Team made up 28% of EA’s net revenue that year. Considering that in 2020 EA reportedly generated $1.49 billion through various Ultimate Team modes, this is a hugely significant amount of money. However, is this commercial success coming at the costs of exposing the game’s young audience to quasi-gambling?


To the uninitiated, the aim of Ultimate Team is to build a dream team of virtual footballers to play and compete against other gamers. The easiest ways to generate coins to subsequently buy the better players and have the best chance of success in the game, is to open packs. FIFA packs give you an opportunity to collect players in return for spending FIFA points, a form of virtual currency, which is redeemed in return for real money. However, there is no guarantee the pack will contain a good player or something that is worth your monetary investment. Rather, the pack system is based on luck. As such FIFA packs and loot box mechanisms within video games, have been heavily criticised for introducing children to a form of gambling. But should EA and other companies have the right to implement such mechanisms, and if so, how can this issue of gambling be resolved?


Following the Belgian Precedent:


In 2018 the Belgium Gaming Commission investigated the use and impact of loot boxes in a number of video games including FIFA. The commission concluded that paying loot boxes are games of chance and thus are a form of gambling. Peter Nassens, the director of the Belgian Gaming Commission, commented that ‘players are tempted and misled by them and none of the protective measures for games of chance are applied’ and as such loot boxes resulted in unregulated gambling and were illegal under Belgian law.


EA publically disputed this judgement, with the CEO of EA Sport claiming that FIFA packs are more akin to Match Attax cards or Panini stickers, than they are a form of gambling. On the surface, this seems a fair comparison. On average a pack of Match Attax cards cost around 90p, whereas it costs around £1.10 to buy one standard FIFA pack. However, this argument is reductionist for one key reason. FIFA cannot be completed. In comparison Panini stickers have a clear endpoint once every sticker has been collected. This furthers the concern that packs pose a far greater danger as the spending can go on and on, fuelling the child pursuit to have the best team possible. Despite threats from EA to take the matter to court, in 2019 EA surrendered and agreed to remove the FIFA point currency from the games sold in Belgium. Thus, gamers in Belgium can still open FIFA packs but only by playing the game rather than by exchanging real money for the pack.

The UK Stance: A Changing Tide?


Within the UK there are growing, albeit belated, calls for updated gambling legislation. In July 2020, the Select Committee on the Social and Economic Impact of the Gambling Industry published its report on such matters. The Committee’s recommendations concluded that ‘ministers should make regulations under section 6(6) of the Gambling Act 2005 specify that loot boxes and other similar games are games of chance’ without waiting for the Government's wider review of the Gambling Act[1]. The desire for urgent reform from the committee is supported by world-leading experts on the connections between video games and gambling, such as Dr David Zendle[2]. Dr Zendle’s research supported the concern that ‘loot boxes’ either cause or exploit problem gambling amongst gamers to generate massive profits and that whilst ‘loot boxes are not currently regulated as a form of gambling they share many features with gambling’. Following this research, there has growing acceptance that reform within gambling legislation is appropriate. Furthermore, any reform must ensure loot boxes as games of chance and thus fall under the scope of gambling regulation.


Conclusion:


For decades betting has been entwined within sporting culture. For many, placing an accumulator before the game is as much a part of game day experience, as going to the match or going to watch the game at the pub with mates. For the majority of football fans, betting is a relatively harmless pastime. However, for those vulnerable betting can be addictive, encompassing and extremely dangerous. It can empty bank accounts and ruin lives. Sports betting should not be banned, but it must be properly regulated.


The current Gambling Act of 2005 is outdated and inadequate. Urgent reform is required to impose greater restrictions on betting advertisements around sporting events so that gambling addicts can watch sport without being bombarded with adverts that target their addiction. However, any new reforms must also be proactive. We now consume sport in more ways than ever and over time more and more children will favour playing the likes of FIFA over watching or playing real football. The July 2020 report outlined that, ‘It is crucial that any future developments in gambling, video gaming or other products that may contain gambling-like elements, which would not currently fall within the definition of gambling, should be brought within the remit of the Gambling Act as they appear. It is too late to regulate a product as gambling, when it has already caused harm to children and young people’. Therefore, any legislative reforms must not only resolve the shortcomings of the current legislations but also must proactively look to prevent further gambling epidemics.


[1] https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld5801/ldselect/ldgamb/79/7909.htm#_idTextAnchor163 [2] https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/83/html/



This article was co-written by Mollie Bailey Hammerton and Nathan Davis, and edited by Adam Smith

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