When gambling becomes a problem

With the Euros in full swing, some people could find themselves in trouble 

By Natalie Bloomer

Many of us enjoyed the first England game of the Euros at the weekend and for some this will have included putting a few bets on. But what happens when something that starts as a bit of fun turns into something much more damaging?

David (not his real name) from Northamptonshire has always enjoyed gambling on football. He remembers placing bets on all the big tournaments throughout his adult life. Often these would be small stake accumulators - betting on the result of several games in one £5 or £10 bet.

Over the years these bets became more frequent and instead of just gambling when a tournament or big match was on, he would bet on lots of games, every weekend. At this point he wasn’t too concerned. Although he was placing more bets, the stakes were still relatively low. But last year that changed.

“In 2020 I think I gambled well over £30,000,” he says. “At my worst, I put on £10,000 in one night. I think it was because I was at home so much during lockdown but I also started to have a losing streak so I would chase my bets.”

David’s savings quickly started to dwindle as the betting got worse. He explains that when he lost a bet he’d start to feel the need to chase it by doubling up on perhaps another player to score or another one being booked. You can bet on just about anything happening during a game so there is always another bet to be had before the final whistle. 

The link between problematic gambling and football has been in the spotlight in recent years. It’s not just the betting websites and bookmakers on our high streets that are seen as a problem but the sponsorship of teams by some of the big betting companies. A government review could soon see the end of that but as it stands there are eight Premier League sides which currently display gambling firms on their shirts.

When speaking about the issue of betting sponsorship and football, the former FA chief executive Mark Palios said last year that “football has to wean itself off the position it is in at the moment…it’s certainly gone too far….I see gambling as something that is pernicious. People get hooked into it and it is a hidden addiction.”

Another issue are adverts and promotions - not just on TV but online and direct to your email or by text to your phone. Once you open a betting account, the chances are you’ll receive regular messages offering you a free bet on a certain game or some other special offer to encourage you to make a deposit. 

“I ended up opening lots of accounts,” David says. “I’d block myself from one to try to help me stop but then I’d just open another with a different company. Once I’d blocked myself from all of them, I started opening new ones in family members’ names.”

Meanwhile some of the biggest gambling companies are making huge profits. In 2020 Entain, which owns Coral and Ladbrokes, made £175m profit and the owner of Paddy Power and Betfair, Flutter Entertainment, saw revenues double. Denise Coates, co-CEO of Bet365 was paid £421m the same year taking her earnings above £1bn in four years.

A recent report by the University of Liverpool and NatCen found that of 139,152 online gambling accounts, 86 per cent were used for betting. Football and horse racing were the most popular subjects for betting with football-only bets generating half of betting Gross Gambling Yield (the amount retained by operators from customer stakes after the payment of winnings but before the deduction of the costs of the operation) and horse racing more than 30 per cent.

It’s not just sports fans that can find themselves in difficulty with betting. Ex-Arsenal player Tony Adams set up a mental health charity for former athletes 20 years ago. Speaking about the issue of gambling last year he said it was the biggest danger in football calling it an “epidemic”. His charity, Sporting Chance, says almost half of its clients seeking help with addiction are doing so due to gambling.

Although lockdown saw most sporting events cancelled therefore making it impossible to bet on certain sports, other forms of gambling continued. A study by the University of Bristol found that overall, men and women gambled less frequently during lockdown but some forms of gambling increased. This included the use of online games such as poker, bingo, and other casino games which grew six-fold among regular gamblers included in the survey. 

Richard Lillyman, team leader at the addiction charity Aquarius Northampton, told NN Journal that lockdown led to a change in the nature of requests for help with gambling.

“Initially we saw a reduction in calls, partly because we couldn’t offer our usual face-to-face appointments but also perhaps because of events being cancelled and bookmakers being closed. But we started to see a change in people’s habits I think due to them looking for something to do while being stuck at home.

“The numbers have gone back up to the usual rate now. We wouldn’t expect an initial spike in calls due to a big tournament like the Euros but often after it’s ended people realise they’ve overstretched and then we start to feel the backlash from it.”

He says gambling is safe for most people but it can sometimes turn into a bigger problem than many realise and it’s important to seek advice before it gets too far. 

David says he realised things were getting out of hand and managed to put a stop to his habit before he got in too deep. But he recognises that it could easily have been a different story.

“It’s scary to think of how much I bet last year. I’m just grateful that I stopped before it got even worse,” he says.

Aquarius Northampton is urging anybody struggling with a gambling habit to contact them confidentially by visiting their website https://aquarius.org.uk/