The last two weeks of football have been dedicated to promoting the Heads Up campaign, the Duke of Cambridge’s current project. However, the overwhelming presence of betting companies alongside the mental health campaign has given football fans a mixed message.

The rise of betting in English football occurred partially due to the 2005 Gambling Act, which made gambling adverts on TV legal for UK and offshore betting companies. As a result, gambling advertisement grew by 1,400 percent between 2005 and 2012, and this year just over 60% of teams in the Premier League and Championship have betting sponsors.

James Grimes is a recovering gambling addict leading a 100-mile walk from 23-26 February, in support of the Gambling For Lives charity. The Big Step 2 walk will see him visit six clubs in London, all with betting sponsors. He says the aim is: “trying to get them to evaluate that relationship, but also within the clubs to raise the awareness of gambling addiction and the fact that it can be a suicidal activity.”

Some clubs are more willing to listen than others: “QPR have given us full permission on their matchday to distribute leaflets about addiction and suicide, and pose with a club figure,” said James. “Three of the clubs have completely ignored it…. West Ham, (Crystal) Palace and Reading.”

Over the past two weekends of Premier League football, players from eight clubs sported betting sponsors across their shirts whilst also featuring a Heads Up logo on the sleeve. “It’s completely hypocritical,” said James. “Gambling is both the cause and the consequence of poor mental health. It’s a complete oxymoron to have that on the same shirt as a betting sponsor.” Whilst the numerous gambling sponsors that flashed around the pitch on digital advertisement hoardings, occasionally interrupted by a Heads Up advert, are a succinct metaphor for football being encompassed by betting.

It certainly creates a jarring image as the NHS puts the number of ‘problem gamblers’ in the UK at around 600,000. Whilst UKAT, UK addiction treatment centres which treat gambling addictions amongst others, state 60% of gambling addicts suffer from depression and 13% have attempted suicide.

Everton announced yesterday that they were cutting their sponsorship deal with controversial Kenyan betting company SportPesa at the end of this season, two years early. This follows on from them being the only Premier League club to act on the connection between gambling and mental health during the Heads Up campaign. They temporarily replaced their betting sponsor with Everton in The Community, a trailblazing charity regularly accredited as saving lives within its community, as the players shirt sponsor. “It just shows that actually there is scope for gambling sponsorship to not have a complete hold of the game,” said James.

The biggest link between gambling addictions and mental health is young men. They are the most vulnerable group to both of these issues and football was the crossroad that they collided on over the past two weekends. Samaritans, an organisation tackling the UK suicide problem, stated that suicide is the biggest killer of people aged 16 to 24, whilst three-quarters of deaths amongst young people are male. Meanwhile, the 2019 NHS Health Survey for England said men were three times more likely than women to partake in online betting and young men were most at risk of becoming ‘problem gamblers’.

“The whole drive of that campaign (Heads Up) has been around young men, 18- to 30-year-old men, talking about mental health,” said James. “But football itself isn’t talking about the fact that gambling addiction is a consequence and a cause of mental health. It’s hypocritical to try and turn a blind eye to it when it’s a public health crisis.”

Heads Up conversations were broadcast in the run-up to the two-week campaign and before some matches as well. This followed on from the well-received Royal Team Talk last year emphasising mental health being engaged with similarly to physical health.

However, this must be a lonely time for those football fans suffering from gambling-related mental health issues. Hussain Vorajee is a recovering addict turned prominent campaigner on introducing stricter betting legislations. “I lost everything: properties, marriage… I was gambling 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock in the morning in Malaysia, China, Japan,” said Hussain. “You are just gambling because you need to gamble, you don’t even understand the teams.” Whilst the fact that it is not truly recognised as an addiction yet exacerbates the shame a gambling addict can face. “It’s a hidden disease, they keep it within themselves,” he says.

Meanwhile, James’ gambling addiction began from an extremely early age, between 14- and 15-years-old. He describes a drug-like feeling after his dad placed his first bet for him at a Peterborough United match: “I instantly got the bug and I remember thinking how amazing this is and why isn’t everyone doing this.”

“When I turned 18 and went to university…I pretty much lost everything, lost every student loan, every grant, every bit of part-time employment earnings,” he says. “That’s when it nearly escalated to the point where it wasn’t just about the money. It was affecting mental health, career prospects, the loss of my job, lost friendships, trust in my family…During my gambling I had no idea where to go to, there was no pathway for support and treatment.”

His struggles continued for another seven years after university before he managed to stop gambling in 2018 and began campaigning against betting companies instead. “If anything, I’m addicted to gambling reform and making sure people don’t go through the same thing that I did,” said James.

Despite the damage gambling addictions cause, one argument supporting betting’s presence within football is the amount of money it brings into clubs. “The sponsorships aren’t going to go anywhere whilst the highest bidder is allowed to be a gambling company,” said James. “Football clubs, especially Championship clubs and lower league levels, they don’t have a lot of money so you can see why they would take it.”

Most of these betting sponsorships are from offshore companies as well. In China betting advertisement is illegal hence the influx of Asian-based gambling sponsorship deals with English football clubs. Many sponsors like ManBetX and LoveBet utilise Chinese characters on the footballer’s shirts to advertise to the Asian market via English football.

The Football Association’s current stance on gambling was made clear when Bet365 were allowed to buy streaming rights to the FA cup. Whilst the whistle to whistle television advertising ban introduced in 2018 appears to be a voluntary scheme by betting companies to jump the gun and postpone stricter advertising legislations being applied. Essentially, it only stops betting adverts at half-time and five minutes before and after kick-off and full-time. Moreover, betting companies are still visible on shirts, advertising boards, match programmes, social media and elsewhere during a match.

In 2016 Gambleaware revealed that gambling addictions cost the NHS up to £1.2 billion per year. Homelessness, incarceration, bankruptcy, mental health services, and welfare and unemployment are just some consequences of a gambling addiction that taxpayers pay for. Part of the problem is that gambling addiction has only recently been recognised as an addictive disorder similar to alcoholism and drug addiction. In America, it was only reclassified as such in 2013 in an update of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. “Finally there is a proper treatment system within the NHS because it’s seen as a health issue for the first time,” said James.

However, the change in attitude towards the risks of betting has not been highlighted to football supporters: “there’s education for the players, every player in the football league gets a one hour workshop on gambling, but nothing for the fans,” said James. One solution he outlines is: “a matchday hub… so, it shows people how to use gambling banning software, signposts towards treatment and offers like a casual informal discussion group. And also, just allowing us to host awareness days for some of the statistics around gambling.”

The overwhelming message of the Heads Up campaign has been to kick off a conversation about mental health. Yet, on the rise of gambling adverts and sponsors within football James asserts: “they’ve turned a football match into a casino game.” The stories from James, Hussain and countless others show we urgently need to start another conversation. A conversation about how much longer we can allow betting adverts and sponsorships within football to be contributing to the rise of gambling addictions and subsequent mental health problems.