Home Features MacKenna On Monday: Old Firm’s Relationship With Gambling Means It’s Dirtier Than Ever

MacKenna On Monday: Old Firm’s Relationship With Gambling Means It’s Dirtier Than Ever

Blink and you still wouldn’t have missed it.

How could you, when those behind it make sure you cannot?

On Saturday morning, there was one element of the Old Firm derby that both took over and took hugely away from the occasion. It wasn’t the game itself nor was it the historic hatred around the rivalry. Instead, in a competition sponsored by Ladbrokes, with TV coverage in conjunction with a bookmaker, and on a pitch surrounded by advertising hoardings flashing up the names of gambling companies and their latest offers, Rangers were sporting 32Red across their shirts, while Celtic had Dafabet scribbled over their famous hoops.

Turns out both sides of the divide do have something in common.

Marketing is bad enough, but this marketing was as exploitative as it was grotesque.

It’s a grubby element of both soccer and wider sport that has been allowed shackle itself to something it should be nowhere near, all to wash its name and make nasty look like harmless fun.

For instance, in the Premier League, Bournemouth, Burnley, Crystal Palace, Everton, Fulham, Huddersfield, Newcastle, West Ham and Wolves all sell the dream and the lie. In the Championship, 17 of its 24 clubs are sponsored by betting firms. Elsewhere racing, snooker and darts are all so reliant on the proceeds that without them they’d collapse.

That there are so many companies about is a sign itself, but what’s so striking is the ease of the infiltration. We wouldn’t let tobacco sell their products this way around sport, and alcohol sponsorship is scorned. Which begs the question as to why this is met with a shrug and a smile?

Right now, according to Gamble Aware, Irish people alone bet €5bn a year.

That’s €14m per day.

That’s €10,000 per minute.

Think about that for a second, as much of that figure is stripping away from many livelihoods and lives. There’s a reason Paddy Power earlier in the year announced annual profits had taken a 19 per cent hike and were now sitting at €440m, that their revenue grew 13 per cent to €1.73bn, and that to keep the arrows pointed in the right direction they’d be re-investing €20m to get back customers that tried to get away.

That last part is the most insightful into methods that are very different to the image sport allows to be portrayed.

However, the problem with breaking an epidemic down as such is that you lose a crucial energy and understanding, a vital interest and a general concern. Just as a doctor on a chat show talking about binge drinking is unlikely to actually curb it, or an academic talking cigarette smoke bores people deep down, the public need a face and a story.

Working on Oisín McConville’s autobiography some years back was a real insight into what so many are enduring. “March kicked in and the pub started to quieten down,” he recounted of his addiction.

“I drew breath, looked at the bank balance and found myself with £90,000 and it just clicked with me in a moment of weakness that Cheltenham was there. I said I’d wander down, throw on a bet and have some fun – but just while the festival was up and running. Sure, don’t Irish people love Cheltenham. But within hours things got out of hand.”

Laois Launch of GAA/GPA Gambling Guidelines 27/1/2014 Former Armagh footballer Oisin McConville Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

He’d been sucked back in and with his pub in trouble as a result not long after that, he was lying in a bed above it – broke and contemplating suicide.

He’s far from alone.

Yet the problem here is that drink too much and everyone around you will be aware such are the physical signs, and the barman will likely cut you off. But in this sphere, the suffering is in silence and the major gambling companies who know you’ve an issue tend to exploit it.

One friend with an addiction tells of how he wasn’t actually allowed cancel his internet account online and when he went to a shop they too refused, citing the same rule. Only when he quite literally pleaded that he was “a degenerate gambler that couldn’t be trusted” was it agreed a freeze would be installed.

Unfortunately, someone upstairs in this company got word and the next day he got a call saying the freeze had been thawed as it was against company policy but “he was under no obligation to continue gambling”.

That is how they make money, and this is what they are using sport to drag people into.

Recently the same Ladbrokes that sponsor the Scottish Premiership paid off a group who’d had their funds stolen by a problem gambler, so they wouldn’t go to the regulator. This after the man in question who worked in property in Dubai had been syphoning off up to £60,000 a day to gamble with. It was enough to be targeted with the common incentives to try and ensure loyalty, as he received a business flight to London for an Arsenal-Tottenham game, four tickets to see the Floyd Mayweather-Marcos Maidana in Las Vegas, an invitation to their company box at Royal Ascot, and a birthday gift of £3,500 credit into his account.

Immoral yet somehow not illegal.

With leading companies having highly sophisticated IT systems, after your first five or six bets and card lodgements, they’re able to tell what kind of customer you are likely to be. Therefore they can immediately identify those likely to be problem gamblers and should have a responsibility to stop them. But one independent bookmaker posed to us the question of whether such data was instead used to target these people, a fair point as one study showed that problem gamblers account for 53 per cent of profits bookies make.

We know all this and still do nothing. So bad is it that recently, Irish greyhound racing started running meets at 8.18 on midweek mornings in Waterford and Kilkenny so that bookies in different time zones would be able to exploit the illness of their customers.

A few months back on a visit to Las Vegas, what was striking was the brutal reality of trickle up economics in this way. One woman at nine o’clock in the morning hadn’t even made the casino, instead heading to a slot machine in the chemist and stuffing it with her change, lost to her surrounds. They say it’s a city with a serious problem. A cesspit. We are no different though, we are just more subtle about it as we can cover the phone screen.

It’s now over five years since Alan Shatter was behind the Gambling Control Bill. It wasn’t exactly heavy hitting to begin with and didn’t push for the obvious solutions like a ban on people being allowed to bet with borrowed money via credit cards. However, what little difference it could make has never been made as it’s still being discussed and debated.

Here, if you contact Department of Sport about this disease they’ll tell you betting tax falls to the Department of Finance, within that racing falls to the Department of Agriculture and gambling itself to the Department of Justice. It’s been divide and ignore and that brings us back to the effect. Don’t forget what’s buried beneath the slick advertising.

If legislation wouldn’t curb this though, sport should itself stop supporting it and growing it. A starting point would be not promoting it via a serious breach of ethics and a complete lack of morality. Little chance.

After all, we’ve now reached the stage where we are told that the Old Firm has been cleaned up a lot from its worst days.

The truth is that it’s actually never seemed more dirty.

About Ewan MacKenna

One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.