Paul Charles Merson is a former Arsenal player and manager who now works as a football pundit in England. Inside the pitch, an icon for many football fans, but soon after that final whistle the reality was another one, Merson was an addict. Gambling, alcohol, and drugs were all part of the cycle Paul was immersed into. An addiction carried in silence by him and thousands of men and women around the UK.
Merson opened about his obsessions with the objective of amending his life. After losing £7 million on bookies, he knows “It is not about the money, it’s about time, I lost 36 years of my life, I lost being with the kids doing good things.”
Merson made his Arsenal debut in the 1986–87 season and stayed with the North London club for eleven seasons. Merson was an essential part of Arsenal’s success under Scottish manager George Graham, helping the team win the Football League First Division twice, the FA Cup, the Football League Cup, and the European Cup Winners’ Cup. He joined Middlesbrough in 1997, a year later he joined and captained Aston Villa. He had a spell at Portsmouth in 2002 before returning to the West Midlands with Walsall a year later, where he served as player-manager until February 2006, when he was dismissed.
How has sponsorship changed over the last decades?
It is almost impossible to enjoy a football game without seeing some type of sports betting-related advertising.
According to a documentary from Channel 4, gambling logos feature 700 times in a football match. This means that gambling logos appear seven times per minute, this is without considering half-time ads.We suffer a constant bombardment of propaganda when we see a football game that we have already reached a point where the publicity doesn’t trigger our emotions as much, we have it so adopted to today’s football that we see normal that before the game they tell us about the quota for team X to win.
Betting has long been a part of the history of the United Kingdom. Gambling goes back to the Victorian era, although much has changed since then; gambling is now controlled and has been legal since 1960. Betting shops grew rapidly in the United Kingdom, and by the 1970s, there were over 15,000 of them. Ladbrokes, William Hill, Coral, and Betfred were the leading businesses in the industry.
With the birth of the internet, bookmakers saw a significant shift, and businesses began to adopt online gambling applications. Mobile betting is the ‘new’ method of betting, but it has brought with it plenty of issues, as the number of occasional and problem gamblers in the UK has risen. The ability to wager at any time of day and from anywhere in the globe are the conveniences that online gambling provides.
The bookmakers are the escape route for many to combat boredom, Paul Merson was one of them, but that distraction would soon turn into an addiction, an addiction that destroys lives and families. Merson in an interview with Fearne Cotton said,
“I constantly wanted to kill myself”
“At the time you are thinking, I play for one of the best clubs in England, I play for England, I’m earning good money and I want to kill myself, who do I tell this? They are going to think I’m crazy”
Sports betting for a few decades has gone hand in hand with the world of sports, but an increase in advertisement has led to an impact on society and the economy that we live in today.
It’s notable that before the 2002-03 season, there were no betting businesses in the league. Fulham would become the first club to partner with a gambling company, Betfair, that year, the Cottagers’ away and home kits featured the Betfair logo. Since then, an increasing number of football clubs have established partnerships with gambling companies.
In fact, at least eleven teams have shown a betting branding on the shirt or sleeves since the 2016-17 season, and gambling sponsors generated £68.6 million of the £349.1 million received through Premier League shirt sponsorship deals during the 2019-20 season.
Today’s sponsorship contracts see beyond the traditional match-day apparel. Nowadays, even training kits contain commercial partnerships, teams like Leicester City and Manchester City wearing specific betting brands only during warmup and training sessions. Aside from the kits, betting companies spend a lot of money on advertisements on the pitchside borders and other areas within the stadiums, and betting brands are clearly displayed on billboards while the action unfolds on the football field. It’s not just the stands; whole football stadiums, such as Stoke City’s Bet365 Stadium, have been renamed after well-known betting sponsors.
Publicity comes in many forms, colours, fonts, and dimensions. On the club’s jersey, in the stadium itself, or simply when we watch the game broadcast on television. This practice used by bookmakers is a psychological strategy to create an association and a correlation between an image and an action
Merson said, “Bookmarkers don’t want winners, if you win a lot, they will shut you down. Bookmarkers want compulsive gamblers that will keep on going and going”
The sports betting industry is a massive business that greatly influences the future of a team, especially if it is small. According to a report published by The House of Lords, called ‘Gambling Harm – Time for Action’, the industry spends around £ 1.5 billion a year on advertising. The publicity is effective since 60% of the profits obtained by a bookmaker comes from that 5% of the population that either is already considered a gambling addict or has a high probability of being one. This statistic shows the magnitude of the problem since the excessive amount of publicity exposed does not favour those who are struggling to get out of addiction.
There is only one team out of 20 possible that is not sponsored by any bookmaker.
Norwich City has agreed to cancel its sponsorship deal with Asian company BK8 Sports, which it would start using in the 2021/22 season, all due to the sexually provocative marketing content that this company promoted. The newly-promoted Premier League team immediately refused to have their club’s image associated with anything of that degree. Norwich has replaced the betting company with the iconic carmaker Lotus, which has been a sponsor of the club for over 18 years.
The psychological approach to addiction
The American Society of Addiction Medicine defined addiction as, “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviours that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences”. Addiction is a disease that is not often treated as such. Paul Merson realised he was sick; he wasn’t a bad guy because he gambled; he was just sick.
“The best way for me to move on is to accept I’m ill, I’m not a bad person but gambling makes you think you are a horrible, horrible person.”
He participated in psychological research at Imperial College in London, as part of his documentary for the BBC, to analyse how his brain reacted while seeing different sorts of images and videos from different categories as part of his goal to overcome his addiction.
This initial brain scan demonstrates Merson’s brain activity when he sees food-related stimuli. We can see that the activation of the brain is minimal, and we can also observe that there is no activation in the centre of the brain, where the pleasure sensors are activated.
The scan reveals that when Merson was watching family-related videos and pictures there was little activation and that his pleasure receptors did not detect any stimulation. Merson, after viewing the image, stated
“Wow, I’m a loner. Addiction does one thing to you, it takes you away from people, and you are happier on your own.”
When watching gambling-related videos, the activation level skyrocketed. There is a lot more activity going on in the brain, especially down in the brain where we didn’t see much with the other neutral natural rewarding cues. When looking at gambling, the pleasures into the reward centres light up quite massively, as well as other key areas for the brain’s salience network, which is putting attention and value into things that you are experiencing, and the brain is processing. Much more activation, and only by looking at triggers.
If a gambling advertisement appears on television, a person suffering from addiction will respond in the same way, which is why there is so much opposition to the gaming business.
The Nature vs Nurture discussion
It’s quite evident that it’s a brain disease, addiction is a brain disease. It’s not only that a person makes lousy decisions; is this something we’re born with? Is it the result of nature or nurture?
The answer is that it’s a mixture, so there’s a genetic component, but there’s also a social environment and psychological qualities like thrill-seeking, novelty-seeking, and impulsivity that causes this disease. According to different studies, Nature accounts for 50 to 60% of the risk. The essential phrase here is addiction risk, addiction is never hereditary. Only the danger of acquiring an addiction is passed down from generation to generation. There is no such thing as a genetically wired addict.
All humans are genetically predisposed to addiction thanks to our evolution. Humans have learned to prioritise substances or activities that induce pleasure because we are wired to crave pleasure.
Investigations suggest that nurture contributes 40 to 50 per cent of the risk of addiction.
Addiction is less likely to develop in a kid raised by loving authoritative parents than in a child raised by permissive, neglecting, or dictatorial parents. Authoritarian parents recognise their children’s successes, push them to success, and encourage them to grow. The youngster learns how to successfully problem-solve, manage their emotions, express themselves maturely, and create skills to combat negative thoughts. Children raised by authoritative parents are better suited to make broad drug and alcohol judgments. Raising a kid in this manner may compensate for any genetic susceptibility to addiction.
Getting out of the addiction
Unresponsible and daily gambling is a difficult life to abandon. Paul Merson wanted to get to the root of his addiction and become a different person but as he says, “it’s difficult to get rid of the feeling of success when you win a bet, that instant buzz when you receive the money”.
“The thing with gambling is that there is no in-between, with gambling you are up here, you are high as a kite, you are winning loads of money and literally 10 seconds later you could be gone. Everything you earned is just gone.”
“I have an app on my phone which blocks all gambling related content, and it helps me to not go back at it and then my wife gives me pocket money, I have no control over money. It was difficult at first because I’m 50-years old, but I know that I can’t have money.”
The House of Lords stated that “for every problem gambler, six other people are adversely affected by gambling-related harm: a total of some two million people. This can lead to the breakup of families, the loss of employment, loss of homes, crime, financial ruin and, in the worst cases, suicide.”
“There is also a cost to society: lost tax receipts, benefit claims, welfare, and the cost to the NHS and the criminal justice system “
Gambling is a disease, not a choice. It is essential that if you know someone suffering from addiction you support them and that you put them in the hands of an expert to combat the problem before it is too late. Paul Merson’s story revealed that the hardest thing is to talk about your addiction. Most gambling addicts keep it quiet, ashamed of their actions and the financial loss they undergo day after day.
“I was so scared to ask for help and the way out to ‘solve’ my problems was to drink and gamble”
“When I was 15/16, I was really shy but as soon as I had that first drink… I had more drinks, didn’t come home, I gambled my money away, I lost everything I felt terrible, I said, I’m a bad person and what got me out of that was to have another drink, have another bet and then it’s just a cycle again.”
“The issue is that we have mental health week, a week? Does it go after a week? There should be an advert on Coronation Street, the most-watched program in the country, every day, every night there should be an advert on mental health just to keep on triggering people and reminding them about how important it is.”
“Now that I’m starting to live a normal life, sometimes I’ll find my brain says, “Come on Paul, you need more than this”, and there it’s where it scares me, addiction scares me to death.”
“Try and get help, mate. Ring Gamblers Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous, whatever the addiction may be and get some help and get around people that have been in that boat. They will understand you 100 per cent.”
Sponsored and Unsponsored Kits, is there a big difference?
If you had to buy one of these t-shirts, which one would you buy?
Both kits are made with exact same materials, the only difference is that one is sponsored and the other one is not.
The first team squad is used to market the ‘official’ kit, which features the gambling logo, while the unsponsored kit is simply a t-shirt picture.
This is a psychological approach called Celebrity Branding, utilised by many organisations throughout the world; seeing someone we respect or appreciate wearing a certain piece of clothing influences our purchasing decisions.
Many firms apply anchor pricing to “trick” you, which is the notion of making a product that was initially offered seem cheaper when placed beside another product. Customers will view the prices of two items in relation to one another, and the first product given will be used as a comparison point for subsequent products as well.
Interestingly, Junior Kits are not allowed to wear Gambling Sponsors.
Junior kits are not allowed to be sponsored by a gambling company. The fact that bookmarkers logos are not allowed on children’s kits is in a way an appropriate decision but also contradictory.
This rule was imposed to protect “the welfare, health or general interest” of those under the age of 18. Up to this point, everything is correct but after analysing the different options Premier League teams offer on their online store, I noticed the difference publicity-wise and the price difference.
The impact Gambling Firms have on the economy.
Bookmakers are with no doubt a part of the economic basis of the United Kingdom and a statement released by the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) revealed that the industry’s economic impact has been as follows,
“BGC members support 119,000 jobs, generate £4.5 billion in tax to pay for vital public services, and contribute £7.7 billion to the economy in gross value added. Betting shops alone employ around 46,000 people across the country, pay £1 billion in tax to the Treasury, as well as £60 million in business rates for local councils, while casinos employ 11,000 staff and pay £500 million a year in tax.”
Online gambling and its explosive increase
The Gambling Commission published the findings of a survey conducted in March 2021, with a sample size of 4,009 individuals, 52 per cent of whom were females and 48 per cent were men, all UK citizens and varying in age from +16 to +65 to ensure a representative sample. According to the survey, there has been a significant shift in online gambling, which is now the largest commercial sector, generating a Gross Gambling Yield (GGY) of £5.7 billion and accounting for 40% of the market.
The statistics show a picture of online gambling in which smartphones are the primary devices, but laptops, PCs, and tablets continue to be significant access points. It demonstrates that, despite the availability of ‘on-the-go’ online gambling, most of the online gambling is still done at home. The development of esports, are clearly visible. While internet gambling is more popular among younger people, particularly younger men, these activities are not limited to the younger generations.
The Use of Our Data
“Sky Betting & Gaming takes its safer gambling responsibilities incredibly seriously,” the company said. “Whilst we run marketing campaigns based on our customers expressed preferences and behaviours, we would never seek to advertise to anyone who may potentially be at risk of gambling harm.”
However, these corporations take all the information they have about you to develop advertisements and offer that you will find difficult to reject.
According to a New York Times investigation, Gregg, an ex-problem gambler, was identified by Sky Bet’s algorithms as a client to “win back.” Gregg continued to get emails such as, “win more than $40,000 by playing slots”, after marketing algorithms detected that he was likely to open them.
According to James Noyes, a senior at the Social Market Foundation, “They recognise your pattern of play, your likes, dislikes, spending preferences, and risk exposure. It’s taking information about you and using it against you.”
Gambling Adverts, Regulations or Complete Ban?
Researchers from Ipsos MORI and the University of Stirling discovered that 96% of people aged 11-24 had seen gambling advertising in the last month and were more likely to bet as a result.
“Regular exposure to gambling promotions can change perceptions and associations of gambling over time and impact the likelihood they will gamble in the future,” they said.
An influential committee of more than 50 MPs and peers has agreed that gambling advertisements should be banned, according to a study that calls for the most major redesign of Britain’s gambling rules in more than a decade. MPs who spent a year gathering data on gambling-related harms will release proposals that might influence the governmental review of how the sector is controlled.
- A ban on gambling ads, both on TV and online
- An end to VIP schemes and inducements to bet
- A £2 stake limit on online slot machines
- Independent affordability checks
- Controls on gambling game design
- A new ombudsman to resolve disputes
The MPs also urged for independent affordability checks to guarantee that people do not wager more than they can afford, expressing worry that corporations are not developing such controls quickly enough.
“They have algorithms where if you spend substantial amounts, they can make you a VIP or give you a bonus email, both of which are to their commercial advantage,” according to the article.
“Therefore, there’s no reason why this data couldn’t be utilised to avoid gambling damage.”
MP Carolyn Harris said, “Gambling has been normalised to such an extent that young people grow up thinking this is a harmless activity,”
“Those who are targeted today will be the problem gamblers of tomorrow. It’s time they [gambling firms] realised the harm they’re doing via this indoctrination.”
The House of Lords Committee report on ‘Gambling Harm’ recommended that gambling operators should not be allowed to advertise on the shirts of sports teams or any other part of their kit. There should be no gambling advertising in or near any sports grounds or sports venues, including sports programmes.
In response, the Government said, “We have committed to review the Gambling Act 2005 to make sure it is fit for the digital age. We share the Committee’s goals of making gambling safer and tackling gambling harms, and we thank it for laying the groundwork for continued government progress, both as part of and separately to the Act Review.”
The government recognises that “while the vast majority of those who gamble do so without experiencing even low levels of harm, some people and those around them experience very significant harm.”
In an interview with Sportsmail, EFL chairman Rick Parry said the timing of improvements ‘couldn’t be worse’ due to the financial struggles of clubs in the pandemic.
“The last thing we need at the moment is for restrictions on other valuable sources of income because they can’t be just switched overnight,” said Parry.
The Government’s white paper – a policy statement outlining suggestions for future legislation — is expected to be released by the end of this year or early in 2022.
There will then be a three-month discussion process before the law is introduced in Parliament, which means that any changes impacting football clubs are unlikely to take effect until at least 2023.
My overall findings indicate that the huge increase in publicity has influenced the number of gamblers in the UK and that a reduction in football promotion would be truly helpful to society. Addiction has a firm influence on our brain and may be tough to resist at times, therefore the more temptations society provides, the more individuals will succumb to it.
I’m not saying gambling is bad; in fact, gambling responsibly can be a fun way to spend time with friends while also earning some extra cash. The problem with gambling is the ability it has to make you want to wager more and more money, quite often money you don’t have. Therefore, advert regulations and spending controls are demanded, in order to keep problem gamblers from spending and wagering money they don’t have, leading them to a debt they can’t afford to pay back.