Increased regulation of ubiquitous gambling industry long overdue

A gambling commission apparatus with independent teeth would be good for everyone

Over the last decade the transformation  has been incredible. Now having an account, either online, or on the phone, is about as wild side as Ed Sheeran. Photograph:  Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

Over the last decade the transformation has been incredible. Now having an account, either online, or on the phone, is about as wild side as Ed Sheeran. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

 

Not only can you bet on the outcome of the Eighth Amendment referendum, there are markets on the margin of victory. Anyone interested can price comparison on dubioustaste.com. And, by the way, it’s only 500-1 the world will end this year. Just in case the fun hasn’t stopped yet.

Such details are a tiny glimpse into how ubiquitous betting has become. There’s practically nothing you can’t gamble on, anywhere, anytime, within seconds, in any permutation, with a click or a swipe.

Even by the transforming standards of the digital revolution, not many industries have become so pervasive so quickly as gambling has.

It used to be perceived as an itch scratched by rakish Flash-Harrys or skeevy slackers. Only tentative once-a-year bets on the Grand National prodded most people into a trip to the wild side of betting shops.

Over the last decade the transformation of that stereotype has been incredible. Now having an account, either online, or on the phone, is about as wild side as Ed Sheeran. A once mysterious backstreet underworld has navigated its way to your granny sitting on a sofa doing her brains.

It’s a lifestyle change which relegates to the halfpenny place that famous marketing coup encouraging wine drinking at home. Technology enabled it. Encouraging it to such an extent is a tribute to the hard-sell.

Its evidence is everywhere. It’s Ray Winstone ‘avin it’. It’s football shirts emblazoned with the name of betting companies. Sponsorship deals ranging from naming rights to ‘ambassadorial roles’. And all of it to an incessant ‘morkoting’ hum servicing our betting instinct.

Because it is an instinct. Neanderthal man drawing on the cave wall probably had a mate standing behind him shouting the odds on when he’d finish. Apart from feeding, fighting and fornicating there aren’t many more basic instincts than the urge to get on. It’s still there in the schoolyard challenge – ‘Wanna bet?’

Mostly it’s harmless. Judgement once meant the difference between life and death. It isn’t that anymore but the urge to bet is rooted in the same judgement test gene. Vindication can be sweet and making a few quid too makes it even sweeter.

There is, however, depressingly abundant evidence of how harmful gambling can be for those unable to stop that urge progressing to compulsion and addiction. Tales of lives destroyed by gambling are nothing new. But the new betting landscape threatens to extend such destruction far beyond that.

Incessant advertising

The suspicion remains that if it isn’t one poison it will be another when it comes to compulsive personalities but there’s real fear that we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of problem gambling and the ever-increasing pervasiveness of the betting industry.

This is the first generation to experience sport and gambling as being almost inextricably linked into a package deal. Incessant advertising none too subtly suggests one is more enjoyable with the other – “It matters more when there’s money on it” etc

Because that’s the juice, man. It’s skin in the game. Like those ‘Ladbrokes Life’ lads larging it, together, as a team, just download the app and join in, be popular, part of the community, belong – these are pretty basic instincts too.

It means the way many of us look at sport has altered. Certainly sport’s coverage has changed. It’s not so long since odds were the preserve of the racing pages. Now it’s factored into everything.

That’s fine too. It’s not like you’ll find too many pockets of Calvinist condemnation about gambling around here. It’s not like anyone expects the gambling industry to not advertise itself or to not stress its appeal. It’s a commercial industry designed to extract as much money as possible.

But this is an irrevocably altered gambling landscape which has regulation rooted in a past lost since gone. Much of the legislation around it is based on days of scratching dockets with stubby pencils in smoky betting shops. Reality has long since passed that by.

It isn’t entirely fair to characterise the gambling industry as some unregulated badlands. But neither can it be reasonably argued that any kind of effective legislative sheriff is in town. And the outcome is a lopsided battle between bookmaker and punter.

The old story was that the bookie never loses but now the punter mostly can’t win either. Or if you do your account is closed or restricted to meaninglessness in a peculiarly backhanded tribute to your betting judgement.

What companies want are masses of mug punters playing for fun but ultimately losing. And vast amounts are devoted to making sure billions get generated on this hard-sell ‘bit of fun’. Yet while everyone concedes there are casualties its regulation remains remarkably light-touch.

Unrestricted messages

A gambling control bill has been stalled for over five years. This is despite even bookmaker groups publicly demanding greater regulation. It’s a complicated matter. But this is too pressing a matter to let such stalling continue.

Expecting the next generation to be bombarded with unrestricted messages of betting as a no-negative fun lifestyle choice and expect not to have to deal with even greater problems in relation to problem gambling is a cop-out too many people can’t afford.

There’s opportunity in legislation such as trying to level out a little the deal between bookmaker and punter. A gambling commission apparatus with independent teeth can only be a good thing for everyone in the long run.

It won’t eliminate casualties from gambling. It also won’t turn back the clock on how the public engage with sport. Like it or not sport and betting are bound together. But there’s no glory reducing it to a free for all.

The old line about sport not being about winning or losing but how you play the game spawned the gag about how what really matters is beating the spread. It’s a good joke. Surely we all have a stake in keeping it funny.

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