I wrote this post about betting way back in the summer and thought it sounded somewhat self-indulgent. But, as sometimes happens, my heart needed to allow time for my brain (and perhaps mass opinion) to catch up. So, here it is. Why I am eschewing one of the more lucrative markets for writers nowadays. I have now edited it to detail some of my work with those in debt and those who have gambling problems.
I like a bet. Although I have been doing it less of late.
There used to be a betting booth near my seat at White Hart Lane, and I would throw away whatever change I had – usually around £2 – on some unlikely outcome, like a full back scoring the first goal, or a 5-0 win. Very occasionally I would have a big win. I more or less broke even over the season. And if I didn’t, it didn’t matter. It was entertainment. I didn’t need to win. £2 was less than a Coke in the stadium. Certainly less than the coke that the dads on day release were doing in the loos.
Anyway, since Spurs have been playing at Wembley, I hardly bet any more. I don’t miss it. But I am not deliberately avoiding it. Sometimes the full backs score. Sometimes Serge Aurier even manages to take a throw-in properly.
Now, in the world of content, social media, copywriting and any other form of the written word that pays nowadays, the betting companies are the big payers. They sponsor the games, the teams, the media. They have Ray Winstone in a cage and make his enlarged head perform for them at half-time, imploring you to chuck a fiver on how many corners West Ham will get. The beautiful game.
But now I’m not taking that cash.
When the fun stops, stop, Chris Kamara tells us. But, for some, the fun never starts. The troubles of footballers and betting is well-documented. For some, the thousands they earn is barely enough to keep up with the bookies’ bills. They’re chasing their losses with wages earned chasing lost causes at the Riverside or Craven Cottage.
For those who don’t have the income of a small former-Soviet state, the problems are even worse. For them, the gambling represents both addiction and escape. The endorphin rush accompanied by the dream of a new winter coat, ticket for the match or the kids’ shoes. The lottery you can win, every day. Only you don’t.
Living in Newham, I have seen the Fixed Odds Betting Terminal (FOBT) fallout up close and personal. The borough has over 80 high street bookmakers, most of which contain a FOBT or two, on which punters can throw away £100 a spin on games that are fixed against them. The dream is that they can beat the odds and the system. But you can’t beat a machine that is programmed to make you lose.
Is it class war? Maybe not. But it’s not benign. Bullets are being fired. Some of them hit.
Newham Council has been waging a campaign against the terminals (albeit a council who let this happen and championed a super casino in the borough), and this is perhaps the one thing I agreed with recently-ousted Mayor Sir Robin Wales on.
The betting authorities and betting companies seem to be either unable or unwilling to tackle the problems caused by FOBTs. They can stop any time they like. The betting companies that is. Some of the punters don’t have that choice.
That misery makes money. So, working class men (and it is always men I see) in Newham will keep throwing away money they cannot afford to keep the shareholders happy as they make their own lives more miserable.
So, I’m not taking that money. I know where it has come from. Sure, it’s not all of it. Some of it was even mine. Paid in at £2 a fortnight at White Hart Lane. But I can’t be a part of encouraging it. Just like I (cue Don Draper voice) don’t work for cigarette companies. Gambling ads can be funny and innovative. Their website copy, too. Just the kind of thing I like to get my teeth into. But no.
Sure, I have my fingers in dirty pies, from the media conglomerates and investment funds that have owned the publishers I have worked with and the newspapers funded by who knows what. I’ve worked for property developers, airlines and banks. I’d probably be working in a public-facing role in any of those if I hadn’t discovered I can write. Working class lad, no media contacts. I made my own path and take a living where I can.
Since I started to write this I have found myself working more and more with those in debt. I wrote the website for the Debt Hacker campaign, interviewing people like Danny, who had his early life ruined by betting. But that all led to helping people claim back money on over £2.6m-worth of payday loans. Far better work than encouraging people to bet on Huddersfield drawing a blank or Neil Warnock being a pillock (actually, I don’t know if you can get odds on that).
Others have already started to take action. Much-respected football magazine When Saturday Comes has dropped gambling ads from their publication. There are also proposals from within the industry to initiate a ban on betting ads during the games on TV. It is a small help. But it is a help. Sure, it won’t stop those who are happy to gamble on animations of Canadian third division games at 3am. But it is a step in the right direction.