1 February 2021

Don’t let the anti-gambling zealots ruin British sport

By

Yesterday saw the final of the German Masters snooker tournament in which the world number one Judd Trump comfortably defeated Jack Lisowski (9-2). Top flight snooker competitions are a dime a dozen these days. There were 42 of them in 2019/20, including 17 ranking events. Between the Riga Masters in July and the World Championship in April, you can find live snooker on Eurosport most weeks. 

As a devoted fan of the green baize, this suits me nicely, but it wasn’t always that way. After tobacco sponsorship was banned in 2005, snooker was on life support. Some wondered if it would ever recover. The schedule was reduced to handful of ranking events and a few low-key tournaments offering derisory prize money. In his 2014 autobiography, Running, Ronnie O’Sullivan recalls how the ban suddenly made the game ‘uneconomical’, with players “practising for a month or six weeks between events, with no cash coming in”. They were dark days.

Barry Hearn has since managed to turn snooker around, but that is largely thanks to the Blair government’s decision to legalise gambling advertising in 2007. The snooker calendar tells the story. The German Masters is sponsored by a company called BildBet. A few weeks ago we had a tournament that was once known as the Benson & Hedges Masters, but is now sponsored by Dafabet. Before that was the World Grand Prix sponsored by Coral. In December we had the UK Championship sponsored by Betway. The Champion of Champions is sponsored by 888sport. The Championship League is sponsored by BetVictor.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Puritans might clutch their pearls and complain about the close relationship between snooker and the gambling industry, but those of us who actually watch the sport are delighted to have them on board, pouring in the money and keeping the tournaments rolling. I therefore take it personally when I hear that a ban on gambling sponsorship in sport is on the cards.

The Government is currently undertaking a review of the Gambling Act (2005) and, according to a story on the front page of the Sunday Times yesterday, such a ban is being seriously considered by Boris Johnson’s supposedly libertarian, pro-business government. There is zero evidence linking gambling sponsorship to problem gambling, rates of which have remained flat ever since gambling advertising was legalised. There is also no evidence that gambling advertising has made children more likely to gamble; rates of underage gambling have fallen sharply in the last ten years. The argument for banning sports sponsorship by betting companies essentially boils down to this: people who don’t like gambling think there is too much of it.

Well, tough. Gambling is a legal activity and no one has ever been harmed by seeing the words ‘Dafabet’ or ‘BetVictor’ on the side of a stage. There will always be people who prefer not be reminded of activities of which they disapprove, but that does not justify censorship. It is true that a lot of football teams have the names of betting companies on their shirts these days, but this is probably a temporary phenomenon that will disappear when the online gambling market matures and consolidates. Even if it doesn’t, so what? It’s up to the clubs to decide who sponsors them, not the people watching the players who have been bought with the money and are having their season tickets subsidised by it.

The financial damage that will be done to sport by having an entire sector excluded from sponsorship will be enormous. Top tier football teams will never struggle to find sponsors, but a ban would create a ripple effect and reduce revenues from top to bottom. Lower league clubs will already be hanging by a thread after a year of playing to empty terraces. A ban would be gratuitously sadistic. Advertising agencies are also on their knees and there is no reason to expect other industries to increase their marketing spend to make up the shortfall. 

At best, clubs will have to lower their asking price to attract new sponsors. At worst, they will go bust. When the House of Lords Select Committee on the Social and Economic Impact of the Gambling Industry looked at the issue last year, it acknowledged that a sponsorship ban would “not unduly harm Premier League clubs, but it would very probably have a serious effect on smaller clubs; some of those in the EFL might go out of business without this sponsorship if they cannot find alternatives”. Incredibly – and despite finding no evidence linking such sponsorship to gambling-related harm – the committee nevertheless recommended a ban because it “would in our view be very beneficial”.

The public are generally laid back about restrictions on marketing because they don’t make the connection between the advertising they are ‘bombarded’ with – much of which is, I freely admit, tiresome and repetitive – and the free stuff it pays for. The puritans breezily dismiss financial concerns by insisting that new advertisers will spring up to take the place of those who have been banished, but there is not a bottomless pit of advertisers, and those who emerge will expect to be given a cheaper deal in a buyers’ market. 

Snooker after the tobacco ban is a case in point. Companies were not lining up to fill the boots of Embassy and Benson & Hedges. It was only the coincidental legalisation of gambling advertising that saved the sport and I, for one, will be forever grateful to the betting companies for stepping up to the plate. It was a classic example of consumers benefiting from advertising even when they don’t use the product.

And now, if rumours are to believed, the Government is thinking of stamping out this source of revenue out too. It is nothing short of reckless cultural vandalism. Anti-gambling zealots are demanding the world of sport pays a high price for their brief, futile moment of self-satisfaction before they move on to their next ban. Unless they are going to personally compensate the sports they are so nonchalant about impoverishing, we should tell them to get lost. 

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Christopher Snowdon is the Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.