A viral social media campaign featuring high-profile BBC and ITV football pundits has been accused of normalising betting among the young and encouraging problem gambling during the Euro 2020 tournament.
Sky Bet last week launched a series of videos starring BBC Euro 2020 pundit Micah Richards and ITV Euro 2020 pundit Roy Keane on a banter-packed road trip to Wembley. The five Sky Bet-branded videos have so far racked up more than 6 million views on the company’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, which also include posts offering free initial bets on the competition’s top scorer and prizes on Sky Bet’s online casino.
Sky Bet’s social media channels have also shared a branded interview with England captain Harry Kane by another ITV Euro 2020 pundit, Gary Neville. He joins Richards and Keane on their road trip to Wembley in the betting brand’s latest video, where the trio discusses England’s chances and who will be the Euro 2020 top goalscorer.
While the gambling industry has agreed to a voluntary “whistle-to-whistle” ban on TV ads shown during live sports events before 9pm, there is no such restriction on digital promotion, which accounts for 80% of gambling advertising spending.
The Observer has established that ITV’s Twitter accounts, which have more than 2.2 million followers, will be showing Euro 2020 goal highlights throughout live matches badged with a gambling company logo.
Research by Ipsos Mori and two university teams into the impact of gambling advertising on young people and vulnerable adults highlights the use of celebrity endorsement, humour and fun to promote an image of gambling as harmless and lighthearted.
The study, which was carried out on behalf of gambling charity GambleAware last year, found exposure to betting promotions made young people more likely to gamble.
There are 55,000 children with a harmful gambling problem in the UK, according to the Gambling Commission. There are 300,000 problem adult gamblers and 440,000 at-risk gamblers. The gambling industry makes 60% of its profits from these problem and at-risk gamblers, whose addiction can wreck families and damage communities. Betting is estimated to cost society up to £1.2bn a year in its effects on health, employment and the criminal justice system.
Matt Zarb-Cousin, the founder of Clean up Gambling, said gambling firms were producing and sponsoring highly shareable online content, which was bound to reach a wider audience, including children. “There is a very good chance that under-18s will be exposed to gambling brands though these viral videos,” he said. “Children will be familiar with these pundits and so it will normalise gambling for a younger generation.”
The betting industry, he added, was using Euro 2020 to gain new customers for its most profitable products, such as casino games and online slots, which account for half of the profits made from online gambling.
“Football is very low-margin for the operators,” he said. “They try to hook new customers in with football betting and then cross-sell the more addictive products like online slots, which have no limits on the stakes. That’s where the industry makes its money.”
ITV faced criticism last week for failing to drop gambling adverts before and after live games, including the England v Scotland clash on Friday. This is now likely to grow, as the channel’s social media highlights throughout the competition will carry a gambling company’s logo.
Carolyn Harris MP, chair of the cross-party group on gambling-related harm, said she was disappointed with ITV.
“This is absolutely soul-destroying because gamblers are not only losing their livelihoods, their homes and their families – in many cases people are losing their lives,” she said. “ITV is allowing gambling firms to push an addiction. It is reprehensible.”
She added that Keane, Richards and Neville should meet problem gamblers. “If they knew the damage caused by gambling, I would like to think they would walk away,” she said.
“They are all respected and have a high profile. Their presence normalises gambling for those who haven’t gambled, and gives permission to those with a disordered gambling problem to do something which is destroying their lives.”
The close relationship between gambling and football is under scrutiny, with ministers considering tougher regulation. Eight Premier League clubs began the season with gambling company logos on the front of their shirts.
BBC Euro 2020 host and former England striker Gary Lineker has come out against the growing influence of betting firms. Last season he took to social media to criticise clubs, including Leicester and Arsenal, for promoting gambling.
Sky Bet said: “Safer gambling is of critical importance to Sky Bet. As sports fans celebrate around the world as Euro 2020 finally gets under way, we will continue to put the safety of our customers at the heart of everything we do.”
ITV said it took its responsibility to viewers very seriously. It said the amount of gambling advertising connected with the live broadcast of football matches at the Euros would be significantly reduced compared with the 2018 World Cup.
“The majority of matches ITV plans to broadcast live have 2pm or 5pm kick-offs and will have no gambling ads under the “whistle-to-whistle” ban. The remainder [which all have an 8pm kick-off] will have no gambling ads in the ad breaks before kick-off or at half-time,” said a spokesperson for the broadcaster.
The BBC, Micah Richards, Gary Neville and Roy Keane were all approached for comment.