EFL chairman Rick Parry has defended football’s right to benefit from responsible betting sponsorship and accepts there are no “magic answers” to eradicating addiction issues among players.
The sport’s relationship with gambling has been in the spotlight again recently after a 10-month ban was imposed on Newcastle midfielder Sandro Tonali by the Italian Football Federation late last month.
The player, who is suffering from a gambling addiction according to his agent, is also being investigated over possible breaches of betting rules in England by the Football Association.
The Big Step campaign, part of the Gambling With Lives charity, said the player deserved “empathy and support” rather than a heavy sanction, adding: “Sending someone addicted to gambling into this environment is like sending an alcoholic to work in a pub. If you force young footballers to endorse addictive products then don’t be surprised if they use them.”
Parry, whose organisation signed a new deal with Sky Bet as its title sponsor in June through to 2029, told the PA news agency that betting companies had made “billions” of pounds out of sport since the introduction of the Gambling Act in 2005 and added: “It’s only fair that there is a way of channelling some of that revenue into sport.
“So enabling sport to negotiate marketing agreements to get a share of the billions that are flowing in is something I have no difficulty with whatsoever as a concept.
“We’ve commissioned research, we’ve looked extensively and we haven’t seen any evidence that sponsorship leads to an increase in gambling or gambling harm.
“The values of gambling in England have been fairly steady across the decades and there is no direct correlation between sponsorship and gambling harm.
“Nobody wants gambling harm, nobody wants players to become addicted, or indeed non-players. But it is two different issues that tend to get conflated in terms of what we are doing with players and indeed with the non players.”
The EFL’s partnership with Sky Bet was singled out for praise in the Government’s white paper on gambling reform published in April as an example of the sort of socially responsible agreement sports should strive for.
Since 2018, Sky Bet funding has supported the EPIC Risk Awareness programme which has provided education to players and staff at all 72 EFL clubs. The programme has reached 2,200 players and staff over the past two years.
Sky Bet’s parent company Flutter will also put £20million into wider research, education and treatment this year alone.
“Behaving responsibly is incredibly important,” Parry added.
“Educating players is something that we’ve been doing for at least the last five years and we’ll continue to do more of that.
“(But) that frankly is never going to stop individuals from wanting to gamble. Ten per cent of people gamble – they always will.
“It is a fact of life, prohibition doesn’t work, so what you have to do is have a framework, that you educate, you behave responsibly, you do everything you can to minimise harm, but eliminating it is incredibly difficult.
“If we didn’t have Sky Bet sponsorship we would still have players betting – they always have, they always will.
“Our responsibility is to try to make sure that we support and that we educate – it’s not just about punishment. As we’ve seen pretty graphically in Italy recently, it’s not just been about identifying punishment, it’s identifying that some of the players have genuine addiction problems. It’s how you assist in rehabilitation as well as punishment, and there are no magic answers.
“It’s a problem that will continue to exist. We have to try to tackle it and address it, without in any way pretending it’s not there.
“But that said, that absolutely shouldn’t preclude us from entering into responsible and sensible marketing arrangements when gambling operators are making a huge amount of money out of sport, and have been encouraged to do so by successive governments.”
Sky Bet will also commit £1million a year to the Building Foundations Fund which will support the community organisations linked to the 72 EFL clubs.
This week is a designated ‘EFL Week of Action’ to highlight the social benefit provided by club community organisations in the towns and cities they serve.