David Richards: Football must wean itself off addiction to gambling cash

'When the fun stops, stop.' Really? I'd laugh, if gambling wasn't such a serious subject. Preposterously, that's the slogan of the advertising campaign created by the Senet Group, the 'independent' body funded by the gambling industry and set up to promote responsible gambling standards.

Leeds United are among the many teams sponsored by gambling companies.

Consider the pernicious underlying message: it’s fun to gamble. Can you imagine the authorities allowing Big Tobacco to present smoking in the same “fun” way, knowing everything we do today about the dangers of inhaling the fumes from burning tobacco? When the cancer starts, stop?

Smoking kills and gambling destroys lives. Indeed, gambling addiction is one of the new threats facing the health service, according to Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England.

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He has warned of an increasing link between problem gambling and stress, depression and other mental health problems.

An estimated 430,000 people in the UK have a gambling problem. A further two million are at risk of developing a gambling problem. This piles pressure on the NHS, which has to try to repair these broken lives.

It gets worse. The number of children with a gambling problem has doubled in the last year, according to the Gambling Commission. The regulator blamed television advertising and online promotion for this appalling growth.

Jeff Stelling, the football pundit, and Ray Winstone, the tough guy actor, should be ashamed of themselves for promoting gambling, as should Sky, which millions of people view as a trusted source of information, although I am not suggesting they are targeting children with their ads.

Gambling has seized control of our national game. Research suggests that 60 per cent of football clubs in England’s top two leagues have the names of betting firms and online casinos emblazoned on their players’ shirts. That’s nine of 20 in the Premier League and 17 of 24 in the Championship.

It’s not just Sky that is pumping out the message. The BBC is complicit too with its Match of the Day highlights package, beaming all those “fun” logos into family homes.

So what is the Government doing about this clear and present danger? Not very much, it seems, in the face of a powerful industry lobby.

Gambling is big business and generates many billions of pounds of revenue in the UK and incredible riches for shareholders such as Denise Coates, the founder of Bet365 who paid herself £265m last year. It is also a major employer in Leeds, home of the Sky Bet powerhouse and the digital operations of William Hill.

Online gambling is a highly sophisticated and data-driven business. It successfully employs many of the same tactics as the social media giants in developing addictive behaviours. I have spent two decades in the technology industry and it saddens me to watch some of the finest minds in the world applying themselves to the tasks of encouraging people to click on ads for things they don’t want or make bets they can’t afford.

It is some consolation that when an online gambling firm mounted a recruitment raid on staff at WANdisco’s office in Sheffield, only one person fell for its charms in spite of the potentially higher pay.

Our team members resisted. They would rather develop data software that helps farmers plough fields, studios make movies and healthcare companies predict cancers. We have real world applications that are making people’s lives better, not making people’s lives worse.

Data analytics are being used in a cynical and negative way in pursuit of profit, regardless of the social, economic and democratic consequences. Taxation is part of the answer, but we know all too well that big tech is adept at finding legal loopholes to avoid paying its fair share.

Instead, I believe the Government should legislate for much stronger regulation of the online gambling industry. It must control the use of powerful and corruptible technology to limit the harm.

In addition, we cannot allow blanket advertising of a public ill to continue. That must mean an end to the pollution of our national sport by gambling companies.

No doubt some football clubs will complain about the loss of revenue as their sugar daddies are run out of town.

They should have a higher opinion of themselves and their social responsibilities and try to set a better example in their communities. Formula One racing survived the death of big tobacco advertising. F1 is a thriving multi-billion dollar sport. Football should do the same and wean itself off gambling.

When the gambling stops, let the fun begin.

David Richards is the founder and CEO of WANdisco. The David and Jane Richards Family Foundation works to advance education in computer science and ecology in UK state schools.