Paul Buck is CEO of EPIC Risk Management, an independent gambling harm minimisation consultancy. He will feature on a panel at Betting on Football (held March 19th-22nd at Stamford Bridge) addressing the issue of problem gambling and integrity with professional sports people. Ahead of the event, Sport Industry Group spoke with Buck to get an understanding of the issue...
Has the issue of professional sports people gambling intensified in the last couple of years?
It’s an interesting question. I would say that the intensity has grown in the press over the last couple of years – there is a lot more talk on the subject alongside greater social media coverage, but I don’t know whether gambling amongst professional sports people is any worse now than it ever was. Gambling has been present for a long time, even in the form of card games and so forth. Gambling itself has changed, being online, anonymous and available 24/7, but I don’t think it’s a new concept. The debate is simply more public, while the specific forms of gambling have changed over time.
Are professional athletes especially susceptible to gambling related harm?
They absolutely are. EPIC Risk Management has worked across all elite team sports over the last two-and-a-half years, encompassing more than 6,500 athletes. We’ve dealt with every professional rugby league and union team at first team level, every cricket county, and are now working with all 72 EFL clubs for the next five years.
We have a great insight into what they are gambling on, how often they do so and whether they view it as a problem. In answer to the question, they are very susceptible for several reasons.
Of the 6,500 elite-level athletes we’ve worked with over the last two years, there isn’t one person who likes to lose. The nature of being an elite athlete means that they are naturally hugely competitive. Chasing losses is one of the biggest routes to becoming a problem gambler, and if a pro sportsperson is losing, they will often play until they’re winning again.
This differs from sport to sport, but players have a lot of time on their hands. Excess time, excess money, the pressure of performing and securing your next contract, as well as peer pressure amongst teammates are all just some of the triggers which professional athletes have.
A statistic we will often refer to in our work is that one in 30 of the general population would consistently gamble more than they can realistically afford. This doesn’t mean that they are gambling addicts. Whilst you are not a problem gambler necessarily at that stage, if you do consistently gamble more than you can afford for long enough you will become a problem gambler.
That one in 30 goes to one in six amongst the high-risk occupations which EPIC work with, including financial services, the armed forces and professional sport. If you take a squad of 30 footballers, statistically five of them are at risk of becoming problem gamblers, and if they are problem gamblers they won’t be performing to their full potential, and hence that team will not perform to the level it should, so it has wider implications beyond just the individual.
What are the most effective means of reaching out to and educating the professionals on the risks?
At EPIC, we approach this slightly differently to the manner in which others have tried to. Past approaches have tended to be textbook-heavy and almost too psychological in their delivery. Put simply, it’s not been relatable enough to this point.
Relatability when educating professional sports people is the key factor, making the concepts something they can engage with and won’t simply move on from half an hour later. In our first year, as we will discuss at the Betting on Football conference, we’ve talked about who we are, who we work with and why they are in a high-risk environment.
We have also shared hard-hitting personal stories from people at the top of their game. While these aren’t necessarily always based in sport, we have shared the stories of the likes of Mark Potter, a former professional rugby player, while Scotty Davies, the ex-professional footballer, will be on stage at Betting on Football.
You can see lightbulbs going on when we discuss these stories with the athletes, and their realisation that this is the first real education on the subject that they have had when it’s such a massive risk in the game.
Relatability and memorability are crucial, and showing a load of PowerPoint slides isn’t going to cut it. What we produce is very visual, and we also use a proprietary six-stage gambling spectrum, featuring non-gamblers all the way through to pathological bettors, and ask the players to map where they think they are. It helps them to see the signs for themselves and their teammates as well.
What have been the key challenges to the progress EPIC has made?
Gambling is not a new concept in sports or for sportsmen or women – it has always been there and has always been seen as a problem in some guises, while recognising that most people can engage with it healthily as they would any other leisure activity.
We started our work with the RFU, and you could tell that they had been crying out for something to come along which was effective in dealing with this issue. As soon as we started our work in rugby, cricket and football soon followed, and it’s clearly the case that the authorities recognised that there was an issue, but that the measures which had been put in place weren’t proving to be effective.
What we are doing is getting the message across, and we have been welcomed across professional sport as we begin to move into individual sports such as darts as well.
To what extent do high profile cases of professionals discussing problem gambling in the media impact your work?
It doesn’t have a huge impact on our work. It does increase the visibility of gambling, both on the betting integrity and match fixing side of things, as well as problem gambling, and it does intensify the media focus and the conversation around the issue.
We have healthy conversations and relationship in all major sports, and ensure that there is a path to assistance for anyone who needs it. Our focus is on player welfare and ensuring people do not reach the edge of the cliff in the first place.
Does gambling sponsorship of sport have an impact on problem gambling rates amongst professional sports people?
I would say that it has very limited impact. I don’t think that a player running out with a football shirt on sponsored by a gambling operator would necessarily make that player gamble more than they would have done before, or otherwise.
There’s a big debate around whether there is too much involvement of gambling within football. Some say it goes too far, others that it doesn’t matter, and some say there are even positives to be drawn from it – without Sky Bet being the principal sponsor of the EFL, EPIC wouldn’t be educating 15,000 professional players over the next five years. Our messaging has gone out after the sessions through the players on social media to more than 10.8m people. Followers of these high-profile people like Frank Lampard and Josh McEachran are in large part 18-34 year old men, and if that message is getting out to that many people on a wider scale it can only be a positive.
The main factor behind our involvement in this is around stigma. Professional sports people are now far more open than they were when it comes to talking about mental health, depression and anxiety, with the growth of organisations such as Mind and their partnership with the EFL. The same is true for things like drug and alcohol abuse.
The one factor not included in the conversation to the same extent is gambling: problem gambling is still seen as a weakness. No-one wants to hold their hands up and say they have a problem with gambling, and the worst thing you can do when you have a problem is to keep quiet about it, as the rock-bottom will be so much worse at the end of it. Programmes like ours and our involvement in conferences like Betting on Football are really crucial in helping people to spot the signs and have the conversation that prevents it becoming one of those rock-bottom situations.