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The (not so) beautiful game: A brief look at problematic videogame playing among professional football players

Today’s blog briefly looks at the issue of problematic gaming amongst footballers and whether it is an issue that professional football clubs must take seriously. In a previous article I wrote about gambling (and gambling addiction) among professional footballers which has become a well-known issue over the last couple of decades. The reasons for why professional footballers gamble have similarities to why they play videogames.

It is the night before a big match. Professional football players are confined to staying in a hotel. No sex. No alcohol. No junk food. Basically, no access to all the things they might love. To pass time, footballers may watch television, play cards for money, or play a video game believing these are ‘healthier’ for them. The difficulty in detecting problematic gaming is likely to be one factor in its growth over other forms of potential addiction – especially as many players are more health-conscious and the testing for alcohol and drugs is now more rigorous. However, any of these ‘healthier’ activities when taken to excess can cause problems. Many years ago, England goalkeeper David James once claimed his loss of form was because of his round-the-clock video game playing. In short, the top players are very well paid and inevitably have lots of time on their hands.

During my career, I have been asked a handful of times by the press to comment on why footballers play videogames. For instance, I was recently interviewed by The i newspaper about the medical consequences of excessive gaming after a story emerged that Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil frequent back problems may have been related to the excessive amount of time he spent playing Fortnite (at least according to Professor Ingo Frobose at the Sport University Cologne in Germany).

mesut-ozil

Although the English Football Association has strict rules on gambling by footballers, there are none (as far as I am aware) on the playing of videogames (and to be honest there is no real need to do so). There are many reasons why footballers may gamble or play videogames to excess compared to other less ‘healthy’ behaviours like excessive drinking or drug taking. It is a shame that addictions to drugs and alcohol tend to generate more sympathy among the general public as many people view gambling and gaming as self-inflicted vices. But gambling or gaming to excess can be just as destructive because of the huge consequences on time and/or money.

According to a story earlier this week in The Sun newspaper, an “English football star” (who wanted to remain anonymous so as not to damage his reputation) had allegedly been playing the Fortnite videogame for up to 16 hours a day which he said was threatening his career (and his relationship) and causing him to miss training sessions. He also claimed there are many more in the sport” just like him. By speaking out about the issue, his motive is to “raise awareness about an addiction which has been described as a ‘silent epidemic’ in football”. The Sun claimed that the footballer’s story was “likely to resonate with dozens of his fellow professionals, who also while away their free time on consoles”. Other footballers such as Mesut Ozil and Harry Kane have claimed to big fans of playing Fortnite. The Sun also claimed that the Professional Footballers’ Association had been contacted by football clubs concerned about the amount of gaming habits by players. In the footballer’s interview with The Sun, he said that:

 “[My] gaming has become a massive problem. When I get back from training, the first thing I do is turn the Xbox on to play Fortnite. I play for about eight to ten hours a day, but I once played 16 hours non-stop the day before a match. When we have away matches and we travel by coach, I am gaming from the moment we leave and then I carry on in my hotel room at night. It is quite normal for me to stay up playing until two o’clock or three o’clock in the morning. I get a lot of eye strain, I am tired the next day and I miss training sometimes. When I started missing training, that was when I knew I needed help as I was getting in trouble from my club. This has been going on for about a year now. If I get told to come off the game, I am sometimes quite aggressive. I have mood swings. If I keep gaming, I worry that it could potentially finish my career. It is also affecting my relationship with my girlfriend because I play on the Xbox instead of seeing her…I think some of my team-mates need help as well. About 50 per cent of our squad are into gaming. And I know they play for a lot of hours because I play Fortnite with them – as well as with players from other clubs.”

The Sun also spoke to the footballer’s psychotherapist Steve Pope. He is currently treating five professional footballers who have problematic gaming and he was quoted as saying:

“Over the last few years, we have probably treated more than 20 footballers for this problem alone. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. They are all at it. It is the biggest scourge of our times. It’s a silent epidemic because footballers can’t be tested for it. I don’t think clubs realise what a big problem this is and the debilitating effect excessive gaming has on a player’s psyche. They wouldn’t let a footballer have a bottle of vodka in their hotel room the night before a game, so why would they let him loose with an Xbox?…If it’s a national problem, which gaming is, then why shouldn’t it affect footballers who have hours and hours to kill on planes, trains and coaches, and then sit in hotel rooms by themselves? For footballers, the real appeal about computer games is that, unlike with other addictions, they can’t be tested for it. It is a problem that needs to be outed to save players’ careers”.

Pope then went on to say:

“Footballers have an addictive personality because that’s what makes them good at their job. From an early age at academies, they are conditioned to work for a high, whether that is making a great pass or scoring a great goal. That is the work-for high. The brain likes that feeling, likes that elation, likes that rush. But if they are not getting that high from football, they are getting it from something else – alcohol, drugs, gambling or gaming. That is the lazy high. Footballers are trained to be competitive and with the kind of games they are playing, Fortnite or Fifa, they are continually in a competition. It’s a follow on from playing football. The trouble is they are playing the games all night and use up all their happy chemicals so their brain is imbalanced. So come the match the following day, they are as flat as a pancake. They are a jangled wreck, trying to clear their head. When I worked in-house at Fleetwood, we banned game stations the night before matches. I would walk the hotel corridors at night time nicking PlayStations and Xboxes to stop them using them”.

Whilst I don’t subscribe to the idea of an addictive personality, much of what Pope says I agree with. It’s not hard to see how professional footballers can get hooked into gaming. Consequently, time rich and money rich young footballers need to be educated about the potential downsides of excessive videogame playing.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Coverdale. D. (2019). Football’s silent addiction: Gaming makes me aggressive and I’m worried it’ll end my career. The Sun, march 28. Located at: https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/football/8735239/football-silent-addiction-gaming-fortnight-addiction-career/

Griffiths, M.D. (2006). All in the game. Inside Edge: The Gambling Magazine, July (Issue 28), p. 67.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gambling addiction among footballers: causes and consequences. World Sports Law Report, 8(3), 14-16.

Wigmore, T. (2018). If Mesut Ozil really is addicted to Fortnite then Arsenal have a problem. The i, December 14. Located at: https://inews.co.uk/sport/football/mesut-ozil-fortnite-addicted-gaming-arsenal-injury-news/

Shirty money: A brief look at football’s relationship with the gambling industry

A couple of days ago, Simon Stevens, the Chief Executive of the British National Health Service (NHS) said that foreign-owned betting companies who sponsor British football clubs should financially contribute to paying for gambling addicts’ treatment. I am all in favour of this, although I think some money should also be allocated to education, prevention, and (predictably) research. This is also an area that I have written about recently.

More specifically, I and my colleague Dr. Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez published a paper earlier this year entitled ‘Betting, forex trading, and fantasy gaming sponsorships – A responsible marketing inquiry into the ‘gamblification’ of English football’ in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. Using data about sponsorship deals from English Football Premier League, we demonstrated that gambling marketing has become firmly embedded in the financial practices of many Premiership football clubs. We argued that these associations are not trivial, and that the symbolic linkage of sport and newer gambling forms may become an issue of public health, especially affecting vulnerable groups such as minors and problem gamblers.

A major preoccupation regarding gambling intersection with sports has been the marketing of betting as an experience inherently associated with the symbolic culture of sport. By emphasising its connections with sports, the marketing and advertising of betting has been theorised to pursue the ‘sanitation’ of gambling, transferring the health-related symbolic attributes of sport and physical exercise to betting behaviour. In this regard, of great concern is the effects that an excessive volume of betting marketing might have on vulnerable groups such as minors and young adults and individuals suffering or recovering from gambling disorder. Furthermore, additional issues might arise in the event that those new categories that extend the definition of sports gambling (i.e., trading, other gambling forms such as poker, and fantasy games) seeking to market their products in alignment with (or appropriation of) sports’ core values and positive attributes. Early examples of this marketing strategy can be found in the sport stars’ endorsement of poker brands such as the footballers Neymar Jr. and Cristiano Ronaldo, and the tennis player Rafael Nadal.

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We asserted in our paper that football shirt sponsorship is arguably a good proxy to calibrate the volume of gambling marketing in English football. Table 1 shows the shirt sponsor evolution over a decade (from the 2007/2008 to 2016-2017 seasons). First team shirt sponsorship with gambling companies evolved from four deals in 2008, six deals in 2012, to ten deals in 2017, accounting for half of the 20 English Premier League teams. The saturation of shirt logos owned by gambling brands has evolved rapidly over a relatively short period of time. However, some industry voices have been anticipating a decline in the numbers of shirts being sponsored by gambling firms due to their incapacity to compete with other business sector, although such a decline has yet to materialise.

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In the same vein, it has been noted that most of the football teams with shirts sponsored by gambling companies are among the less powerful in the league, both in terms of economic profitability and sporting success. Analysing the data from end of season table positions indeed demonstrates a bias of gambling companies sponsoring teams towards the bottom of the table. Thus, the four teams (out of 20 in the English Premier League) with gambling logos in 2007/08 finished the league 6th, 7th, 11th, and 15th. In 2011-12, the six teams sponsored by gambling companies finished 10th, 11th, 13th, 16th, 18th, and 20th. In 2016/2017 season, the ten teams with gambling sponsors showed an almost perfect inverse correlation between table position and gambling-origin shirt sponsor, ranking 9th, 10th, 11th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, and 20th (19th being a money loan company).

This could be interpreted as a nuanced strategy. More specifically, gambling operators might believe they have enough global exposure that the league as whole offers, without needing to pay premium sponsorship deals to attach their brand to the most supported and successful teams (because all the lower ranked teams have to play all the upper ranked teams and therefore get equal advertising exposure during televised games).

Table 2 shows the breadth of the gamblification process by focusing on sponsorship deals running through 2016-17 season in the English Premier League. As can be observed, all teams secured at least one official betting partner, with some of them having multiple partners due to regional deals in strategic markets to provide so-called ‘geo-targeted’ betting experience. An illustration example is Arsenal club’s deals with 12Bet company in Asia, Betfair in Europe, SportPesa in Kenya, and Tempobet in Oceania. Altogether, the 20 English Premier League teams totalled 20 different betting brands, with 12 brands sponsoring only one team, five brands sponsoring two teams, and three brands sponsoring three different teams. Despite how fragmented the betting market might look, these brands represent only a small fraction of the actual number operating in association with the English football. In fact, betting brands are generally considered to offer poorly differentiated products in highly competitive markets. Consequently, marketing plays a significant part in artificially creating singular attributes that facilitate the acquisition and maintenance of customers.

Screen Shot 2018-09-06 at 10.10.38Sponsorship deals with trading companies are not as prevalent as betting sponsorships. However, 14 out of 20 English Premier League teams have linked partnership deals with trading companies – most notably forex trading – for 2016/17 season. Only one trader (EZTrader) sponsors two different teams, while the rest are unique sponsors. Arguably, the same betting market attributes of low product differentiation and competitive environment also applies to trading firms.

Fantasy gaming is rapidly becoming a large component of sports appreciation, especially in the USA where fantasy sports appears to have partially absorbed the consumer base for online sports betting, an illegal activity in most states. Although still in its infancy in Europe, eight out of 20 English teams already have agreements in place with fantasy sports companies, some of which include a deal with DraftKings, the leading company along with FanDuel in USA’s fantasy gaming market. The concentration of brands here is slightly higher than in the case of betting and trading sponsorships, but six different brands still populate the growing fantasy gaming market in the English Premier League.

The detrimental effect on public health of an increase in the sports betting marketing volume is difficult to demonstrate. British data collected by the Gambling Commission is inconclusive due to the lack of definition of what constitutes gambling on sports. In general, research has found difficult to substantiate the causal association between gambling advertising exposure and behaviour, particularly when the effects of such exposure might take place weeks or months later. Despite the difficulties of finding empirical evidence of the real impact of marketing on betting behaviour, many authors have acknowledged that the association between marketing and gambling disorder is plausible, at least theoretically.

The sports betting marketing and advertising growth could be theorised to have two effects. First, an increase in gambling advertising exposure will lead to a higher prevalence rate of problem gambling. Many scholars have indicated that problem gamblers are usually more exposed to advertising (e.g., they visit more frequently gambling websites or watch more sport events), therefore it cannot be established whether they gamble more because they are exposed to more marketing instances or the are more exposed because they gamble more. However, a study I published with my Norwegian colleagues at the University of Bergen conducted among 6,034 Norwegian gamblers found that problem gamblers had a greater involvement with gambling advertising even when they were similarly exposed than regular non-problem gamblers.

Second, an overall rise in the consumption of gambling products following more aggressive marketing strategies, even while maintaining stable the percentage of people experiencing gambling-related harm, would lead to a rise in absolute numbers of people developing gambling problems. Simply put, keeping problem gambling rate constant, the more people that bet on sports, the more problem gamblers.

There is a wide consensus that sports betting marketing (and advertising) must be regulated, and is the case in most jurisdictions including the UK. However, there is no specific protection concerning the marketing of trading and fantasy gaming as a specific product category associated with sports. Finally, our paper noted that although there is no scientific evidence the marketing agreements between football clubs and the gambling industry are actually having a detrimental effect on the aforementioned vulnerable groups, it makes theoretical sense to think that they might potentially cause harm.

Note: This article was co-written with Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D., Estévez, A., Guerrero-Solé F. & Lopez-Gonzalez, H. (2018). A brief overview of online sports betting advertising and marketing. Casino and Gaming International, 33, 51-55.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H., Estévez, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Marketing and advertising online sports betting: A problem gambling perspective. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 41, 256-272.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H., Estévez, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Controlling the illusion of control: A grounded theory of sports betting advertising in the UK. International Gambling Studies, 18, 39-55.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Is European online gambling regulation adequately addressing in-play betting advertising? Gaming Law Review and Economics, 20, 495-503.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Betting, forex trading, and fantasy gaming sponsorships – A responsible marketing inquiry into the ‘gamblification’ of English football. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 16, 404-419.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Understanding the convergence of online sports betting markets. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, in press.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. Guerrero-Solé, F., Estévez, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Betting is loving and bettors are predators: A Conceptual Metaphor Approach to online sports betting advertising. Journal of Gambling Studies, in press.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H., Guerrero-Sole, F. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). A content analysis of how ‘normal’ sports betting behaviour is represented in gambling advertising. Addiction Research and Theory, 26, 238-247.

Lack of ball control: Gambling addiction among football players

Earlier this month, ex-England footballer Kenny Sansom made the news after he was found homeless sleeping on a park bench following his self-admitted addictions to both gambling and alcohol. Gambling by footballers is nothing new of course. Back in 2006, the media lapped up the story that Wayne Rooney allegedly ran up gambling debts of £700,000 with the Goldchip betting company. At the time, the Government’s (then) Sports Minister, Richard Caborn, warned the England team footballers not to bet on World Cup matches endorsing the decision by football’s world governing body (FIFA) to outlaw players betting on the tournament. Today’s blog briefly looks at the issue of gambling addiction amongst footballers and whether it is an issue that clubs must take seriously.

So why do professional footballers gamble? Gambling and football have always been inextricably linked. Whether it is the football pools, a punt on who will win the FA Cup final, or a spread bet on the number of yellow cards to be handed out during the next World Cup, gamblers love betting on the outcome of football matches. But there are also good psychological reasons that encourage top players to gamble – particularly if looked at from the player’s perspective.

It is the night before a big match. Premiership players are confined to staying in a hotel. No sex. No alcohol. No junk food. Basically, no access to all the things they love. To pass time, footballers may watch television, play cards, or play a video game believing these are ‘healthier’ for them. The difficulty in detecting gambling addictions is likely to be one factor in its growth over other forms of addiction – especially as many players are more health-conscious and the testing for alcohol and drugs is now more rigorous. However, any of these ‘healthier’ activities when taken to excess can cause problems. England goalkeeper David James once claimed his loss of form was because of his round-the-clock video game playing. In short, the top players are very well paid and inevitably have lots of time on their hands. By their own admission, ex-Arsenal and England players like Paul Merson and Tony Adams lost millions of pounds gambling and regularly attended Gamblers Anonymous along with treatment for other addictions to alcohol and cocaine. Paul Merson claims to have lost £7 million to gambling and cocaine, and was still having severe gambling problems over a decade after his football career had ended.

It would also seem to be the case that there is a psychosocial subculture of gambling by footballers. The ex-England striker Kevin Phillips claimed that when he was part of Kevin Keegan’s England squad (as a Sunderland player in the 1990s), he was alienated by the other players for not taking part with the other players in the team’s pre-match gambling activities. Phillips’ ex-strike partner at Sunderland, Niall Quinn, knows only too well the inherent dangers of gambling. While playing for Arsenal he regularly lost his whole week’s wages at the bookmakers inside an hour of getting it. Whilst he was never truly out of control, he did have to re-mortgage his flat to pay off gambling debts. Quinn says he was lucky not to be paid the kind of wages players get today as he would have lost more. Ex-footballer (and now TV and radio football pundit) Steve Claridge claimed in his autobiography to have blown £1m on gambling, while the ex-Northern Ireland winger Keith Gillespie became addicted after placing bets for team-mates.

More recently, there have been a number of high profile cases of top footballers with gambling problems. These include the West Ham and Stoke winger Matthew Etherington and ex-England striker David Bentley who was reported to be placing up to 100 bets a day on everything from horses and greyhounds to online poker and bingo. Another high profile case to hit the headlines was Icelandic ex-Chelsea player Eidur Gudjohnsen who was alleged to be in £6 million in debt because of his gambling despite a £3 million-a-year wages at his current club Monaco. While he was at Manchester United, the Dutch striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy said that “obscene” wages were fuelling constant gambling by other players in the team.

I am often asked by the press to comment on why footballers gamble and whether they are more susceptible to gambling addiction. One player I was asked to comment on was ex-England striker Michael Owen (whose friend Stephen Smith – somewhat ironically – ran the company that Wayne Rooney ran up his debts with). It was clear that to me that Owen did not have a gambling problem and could easily afford to lose the amounts he was alleged to have lost. However, it could be argued that he and players like Wayne Rooney are role models for many teenagers. As a psychologist I have some concerns about the messages that high profile footballers send out about gambling to vulnerable individuals. Teenagers are less likely than adults to be able to make informed choices because they are young and impressionable. Footballers who gamble are unconsciously giving out the message to adolescents that gambling is something that goes hand-in-hand with being a top footballer.

Tony Adams alleged that every football club in England has a problem with gambling addiction. This was one of the primary reasons why set up his own charity (Sporting Chance) to help footballers with addiction problems. At present, this appears to be the main source of help for footballers who are problem gamblers, although Gamblers Anonymous also appears to be another popular outlet for help. Press reports from the mid-2000s indicated that up to 60 Premiership football players were being treated for gambling addiction. Adams alleged that some players – despite being on vast wages – even stole from their children’s savings to cover their losses. He said footballers that were gambling addicts “lose their self-respect and before you know where they are, they are nicking money out of their kids’ savings to have a bet. It is something about which clubs need to be aware. It is difficult to trace – but it can cause a lot of damage.” Peter Kay, the Chief Executive of the Sporting Chance clinic claims that footballer’s passion for football predisposes them to gambling problems. He said:

“If you have the kind of driven, obsessive character that it takes to become a professional footballer, with that tunnel-vision, then you are predisposed. I have not come across a football club where gambling does not play a part in the players’ lives. If a player is dropped from the team, this can often lead to depression and a craving for the buzz of football – sometimes found in gambling. It is acceptable to gamble. There have always been famous gamblers in football and for most it is enjoyable. But for around 10 per cent it is an addiction”.

Although the English Football Association has strict rules on gambling by footballers, these are not a deterrent to gamble and as outlined above, there are many reasons why footballers may gamble to excess compared to other less ‘healthy’ behaviours like excessive drinking or drug taking. It is a shame that addictions to drugs and alcohol tend to generate more sympathy among the general public as many people view gambling as a self-inflicted vice. But gambling to excess can be just as destructive because of the huge financial consequences. Therefore, time rich and money rich young footballers need to be educated about the potential downsides of excessive and/or high stakes gambling. Through the work of the Sporting Chance clinic, this is beginning to happen, but as footballers’ wages continue to increase, gambling is one activity that may place an increasing role in the lives of the players.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Adams, T. and Ridley, I. (1999), Addicted. London: Harper Collins.

BBC Online News (2007). Etherington in gambling admission. February 24. Located at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/teams/w/west_ham_utd/6392549.stm (Last accessed December 10, 2009).

Burt, J. (2003). Adams charity claims gambling addiction is rife. The Independent, January 16. Located at; http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/news-and-comment/adams-charity-claims-gambling-addiction-is-rife-601846.html (Last accessed December 10, 2009).

Chaytor, R. (2008), Paul Merson gambles away £300,000 home. Daily Mirror, November 1. Located at: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/top-stories/2008/01/11/paul-merson-gambles-away-300-000-home-115875-20281696/ (Last accessed December 10, 2009).

Claridge, S. & Ridley, I. (2000). Tales From The Boot Camps. London: Orion.

Griffiths, M.D. (2006). All in the game. Inside Edge: The Gambling Magazine, July (Issue 28), p. 67.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gambling addiction among footballers: causes and consequences. World Sports Law Report, 8(3), 14-16.

Menezes, J. de (2013). Former England star Kenny Sansom admits he’s ‘homeless, a drunk and sleeping on a park bench’. The Independent, August 1. Located at: http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/news-and-comment/former-england-star-kenny-sansom-admits-hes-homeless-a-drunk-and-sleeping-on-a-park-bench-8741512.html

Merson, P. (1996). Rock Bottom. London: Bloomsbury.

Peake, A. (2009). Eidur down £6M: Gambling has ace Gudjohnsen owing two banks. The Sun, December 3, p.25.

Winter, H. (2008). David Bentley had to fight gambling addiction. Daily Telegraph, April 10. Located at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/columnists/henrywinter/2296852/David-Bentley-had-to-fight-gambling-addiction.html (Last accessed December 10, 2009).