Gambling giants were last night accused of ‘providing the gateway for the next generation of harm’ after bombarding sports fans with TV adverts and free bets during the return of Premier League football.
Despite curbs on TV gambling advertisements around live sporting events introduced last year, the first two televised Premier League matches since the coronavirus-enforced break were deluged with 24 separate gambling commercials.
Astonishingly, 14 of these – including offers of free bets of up to £10 – were shown before the 9pm watershed.
Last night Carolyn Harris, the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for gambling harm, led renewed calls to ban gambling advertisements altogether, as she accused large firms of ‘swarming like vultures’ on viewers.
Consultant psychologist and clinical director of the NHS Northern Gambling Service Dr Matthew Gaskell said: ‘These adverts cause immense harm. Football is huge amongst children and these adverts are for adult products, often endorsed by celebrities who should know better.
‘They normalise a harmful, adult product just as the tobacco industry used to do, providing the gateway for the next generation of harm.’
Alongside TV advertisements, Wednesday’s top-flight matches also beamed the logos of gambling firms to millions of youngsters via shirt sponsors, pitchside hoardings and large banners behind players and managers as they were interviewed.
The Mail’s Stop The Gambling Predators campaign continues to call for greater protection for addicts.
The Premier League defended its links with gambling last night, arguing that ‘betting and sport have an historic association’.
Gambling firms have come in for fierce criticism during the lockdown, with a cross-party group of MPs this week supporting a ban on all TV and online gambling advertising following a year-long inquiry.
But in the hours leading up to the first live top-flight games in 100 days – Aston Villa v Sheffield United and Manchester City v Arsenal – betting giants flooded social media with offers of free bets to encourage new users.
Coral shared a ‘new Premier League offer’ of a free bet of up to £50, and free bets were promoted by Paddy Power and Sky Bet.
At 4.47pm on Wednesday, during the Sky Sports build-up to Aston Villa’s 6pm kick-off, Paddy Power ran a TV ad offering a free £5 bet on the following game. At 5.44pm, Coral offered a free £10 bet ‘if your first free bet on football loses’.
Ten minutes later, actor Ray Winstone promoted live match odds for betting giant Bet365.
It came just days after Claire Murdoch, the mental health director of NHS England, warned the return of football ‘must not be an excuse for gambling firms to open the floodgates of addiction’.
In August last year, gambling giants voluntarily agreed to a ban on adverts during live televised sport before the 9pm watershed.
The so-called ‘whistle-to-whistle’ ban period begins five minutes before the start of a match and ends five minutes afterwards.
Labour MP Jo Stevens, shadow secretary for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said: ‘It was troubling that the long-awaited return of live football was accompanied by a bombardment of gambling adverts and financial incentives.
‘We urgently need the gambling industry to adopt a more responsible approach to advertising.
‘If it doesn’t, then the case for legislation to ensure that they do becomes louder and stronger.’
Between 4.30pm and 6.30pm on Wednesday, nine separate TV ads with the logo ‘sponsored by Bet365’ appeared on Sky’s football coverage. Sky do not count these ‘sponsorship spots’ as gambling ‘adverts’ as they do not explicitly encourage betting.
A Sky spokesman said: ‘Gambling advertising during Wednesday’s football was well within broadcasting guidance and regulations. TV advertising accounts for only 15 per cent of gambling companies’ advertising spend and is subject to the highest standards of regulation.
‘The real risk is online, where there is far less regulation and ads run at all times of the day.’
A spokesman for Bet365 said: ‘When lockdown began, Bet365 voluntarily stopped all advertising on free-to-air TV, Sky and BT Sport and we stopped all emails, text messages and social media campaigns to attract new customers.
‘The only proactive message customers received from us was an email about our responsible gambling tools. Now live sport is back we have begun to show some advertising again. All of our adverts are in full compliance with guidance set by the ASA and the industry code for socially responsible gambling. We have also voluntarily dedicated 20 per cent of our TV advertising to responsible gambling messaging.’
A spokesman for GVC, the company behind Coral and Ladbrokes, said: ‘We are the only gambling company to have gone further than the whistle-to-whistle TV ad ban before the 9pm watershed, by voluntarily ending sponsorship of both football shirts and stadium hoardings.’
Paddy Power declined to comment. A spokesman for the Betting and Gaming Council, which represents the industry, said: ‘Our members … adhere to the stringent standards put in place by advertising watchdogs.’
A Premier League spokesman said: ‘The Government has a vital role in ensuring that an effective regulatory regime is in place and to help protect people from gambling-related harm.’