There is no purity to professional sports, of course, and we know that. The clubs we root for are multi-million or -billion dollar concerns and the broadcasts we tune into is brought to us by insurance companies and brewing conglomerates. There are oil barons and finance grifters in the owners’ boxes. This is a deal we continue to make, we guess, though we’ve never been close to the negotiating table. It’s acceptable, by and large, because the action is tremendously entertaining and the players seem to get quicker and sharper every few years. It’s something of a false transaction, the notion that being bombarded by logos and corporate slogans is the price we pay for the joy sports provide, but we pay it anyway. An advertising board with a Nike swoosh never drove anybody away from a game they wanted to watch.
So breaking point is not the right term, because we’re all still here in the stands and on our couches, but this is worth remarking upon: betting companies have totally infested soccer. This is an international problem but if we just look at England, where in 2017 there were over 400,000 problem gamblers and where complaints against predatory betting firms have increased 5,000 percent over the past five years, literally half the Premier League’s clubs have a betting sponsor on the front of their shirt. Last season, only one team (Burnley) didn’t have some official partnership or another with a corporate bookie and nearly every match broadcast in the UK featured a halftime ad with Ray Winstone’s disembodied head appearing alongside available live betting wagers like Salah To Score Next, 3-to-1.
Those commercials are gone now thanks to a bit of self-policing (you might call it self-preservation) from the industry, but if glimpsing a betting company logo every three minutes is not the same thing as being enticed to plunk down 50 quid on Liverpool by the third lead of The Legend of Barney Thomson, it’s still tacky and invasive. It preys on human impulsiveness too. Unlike a set of Yokohama tires or an AIA life insurance policy, the ability to place a bet is something that’s right at hand to anyone who has a smartphone, and the betting apps themselves are designed to make it as easy as possible to wager. You can bet with about as little effort as you can text or tweet, and that convenience creates a false inconsequentiality. You don’t think much of the act itself and 45 minutes later you can be out tens, hundreds, thousands of dollars.
English soccer and the betting industry appear to be making firmer friends by the year. Wayne Rooney recently signed a player-coach contract with Derby County. He’s going to join the Championship side in January and he’ll reportedly be making about $120,000 per week. Derby’s main shirt sponsor is 32Red, an online casino based in the tax haven of Gibraltar. They’ll be subsidizing part of Rooney’s salary and he’ll wear the number 32, essentially making him a walking billboard for a betting house. This is one step short of the Golden Palace shenanigans of the mid-aughts.
You won’t find me making this argument often, but there is something to be said for tasteful advertising. Or even just the inane stuff: washed up celebrities making bad jokes, perfect families gathering in the breakfast nook to talk about the benefits of homeowners’ insurance, a logo that’s just a red box with with some letters inside it. Emirates Airline is run by Dubai, which is part of the United Arab Emirates, a country with a terrible record on women’s and labor issues, and which Human Rights Watch describes as having “launched a sustained assault on freedom of expression since 2011.” On the one hand, I understand that the Fly Emirates on Arsenal’s shirt is the UAE trying to use a big English club’s global reach to promote an airline that helps bankroll an atavistic and oppressive regime. On the other, Emirates’ business isn’t built on stupid impulse buys. I don’t feel they’re hectoring me as I watch Granit Xhaka buccaneer through N’Golo Kante’s shin for a second yellow, so I’m less distracted by Emirates’ presence.
Is that a personal thing? Yes, to an extent, but consider that the betting industry is built on coercion. Much like the beer and liquor business, they seek to create a sense that there’s something you’re missing out on—some higher level of fun, like whatever you’re doing could be 20 percent more enjoyable—that’s accessible if only you use their product. It plays on your unhappiness, restlessness, and insecurity, and it’s gross. To compare the sins of the betting industry with, say, the automotive sector would be tedious and I’d end up condemning both of them—which would change nothing anyway—but Chevrolet is at least trying to sell you something you might need. Bet365 or whoever is pushing a rush and lightening your pockets.
You make a bargain with professional sports, or rather the terms of the bargain have already been set for you and then you grudgingly accept. It’s an unfortunate reality that part of that bargain—in England and, probably soon, here in the U.S.—is suffering carnival barkers who say they want you to win big but are actually trying to rob you. In principle betting can be fun, provided you have some self-control and an awareness of what you’re in for, but its infiltration of the sporting world, in tone and in sheer gobsmacking force, encourages the most thoughtless and destructive kind. Of course we’re not following amateur ball and the salaries and stadiums aren’t cheap. We know this. But does being a fan have to make us feel a little more terrible all the time?