[Screenshot of a National Lottery advert appearing on Facebook today]
Like millions of others across the globe, my eyes have been fixed on Rio for the last two weeks. Whether via radio, television or podcast, I’ve been taking in as much coverage of the 2016 Olympics as I can. Seeing so many athletes at the top of their game is such a thrill, even as an armchair spectator at home. The huge success of British competitors in a wide variety of fields feels like an added bonus. I’ve loved watching post-event interviews with them, hearing their individual stories and often teary declarations of thanks to their key supports: family, friends, team-mates, coaches, the National Lottery…
The latter has made me wince every time it has been mentioned. I completely understand that the athletes want to thank the source of their funding. I also understand that money from the lottery has played an essential role in developing British sport to the level that we see in Rio; for a country of sixty million people, we are tabling ridiculously well. Still, it makes me sad that so many of our top sportsmen and women are only able to pursue excellence because of state-sponsored gambling.
The relationship between gambling and sport is by no means new. Horse-racing and betting have been inextricably linked for centuries, with the very parlance of the sport infused with gambling terms such as ‘odds on favourite’. In the UK at least, we think nothing of hearing betting tips intermingled with racing’s media coverage; indeed, the ‘racing tip of the day’ is an integral part of many morning news bulletins.
From the 1920s onwards, thousands of British families took part in the weekly ‘pools’, a form of betting on top level football with forms to predict the results of games delivered to the door – meaning many who wouldn’t dream of entering a ‘bookies’ (bookmakers) participated. Like the lottery today, it was domesticated enough to barely register as gambling. For those people, ‘the pools’ was simply part of everyday life, something that the elusive ‘everybody’ did.
As the popularity of ‘the pools’ waned in the late twentieth century, other forms of gambling came into the ascendancy. The 1990s and 2000s in Britain saw a massive liberalisation in gambling legislation, with the introduction of the National Lottery, Lottery scratch cards and an enormous rise in the number of casinos and bookmakers. The rise of the internet aided this trend, with an explosion of on-line poker, bingo and other gaming sites.
Again, sport has been central to these developments. You only have to watch one advertisement break in a Premier League football match to witness the enormous proliferation of betting websites. The latest odds flash on screen and having a flutter is as easy as pushing a few buttons on your smartphone. Armchair gambling has reached unprecedented levels.
These trends disturb me. I’m by no means puritanical about the subject; one of my early memories is sitting with my grandad and putting lines and circles on a pools firm. I will buy raffle tickets for others’ fundraisers and I’ve bought a handful of lottery tickets and scratch cards in the past. I even got my partner to place a wager that Newcastle United would get relegated again this season.
Yet even so the ubiquity and ease of gambling in contemporary society bothers me. The fact that despite my reservations I can’t resist the odd punt only reinforces my belief that betting is a modern day menace. I’m not alone in this belief, with the annual Health Survey for England including questions about gambling behaviour for the first time in 2013.
What troubles me the most is the unquestioning acceptance of the National Lottery as part of the world we live in. Playing the lottery is by far the most common form of gambling in Britain yet we simply don’t regard it as gambling at all. People pick up their tickets with their milk or papers, or have their entries automated online. It’s as normal today as brushing one’s teeth, only brushing one’s teeth brings greater guarantee of results.
As with the earlier ‘pools’, this skewed perception of the National Lottery as somehow not really gambling facilitates the participation of players who would sneer at its more overt manifestations such as online bingo or in-play match betting. The former falls within the realms of respectability; the latter far less so.
The association of the Lottery with its ‘good causes’ no doubt supports this veil of respectability. If you ask people why they’ll buy a (respectable) Lotto ticket when they wouldn’t dream of taking part in a (non-respectable) form of betting that actually offers them better odds of winning, some might cite convenience. Some might refer to the greater prize money. There will, however, be many who claim that the contribution from each Lottery ticket sale to charities, the arts and sport funding is a major factor in why they play each week.
The thankful comments from Britain’s Rio 2016 athletes reinforces this connection between the Lottery and ‘good causes’. The Lottery organisers have also heavily emphasised the link in their 2016 marketing campaigns, with adverts on bus shelters up and down the land claiming you are ‘part of Team GB’ if you buy a ticket.
What a tempting lure! Bugger all the years of hard work and dedication – just shell out £2 on a ticket for Wednesday or Saturday’s draw and you can join our Olympic team anyway!
It is this advertisement that has particularly evoked my ire. Why should I be excluded from being part of Team GB at the Olympics simply because I have boycotted the Lottery for at least the last decade? And how much does each individual’s contribution via the Lottery (as opposed to direct giving) actually amount to?
I decided to do a bit of digging around the figures. It turns out that 28 percent of the Lottery’s takings go to the ‘good causes’. That 28 percent is then divided into the different categories of which sport is one alongside charities, the arts, heritage etc. In the 2015/16 financial year, 20 percent of the ‘good causes’ money went to sport.
So one-fifth of 28 percent went to sport. The overall figure is not to be sniffed at but per player the amount isn’t that great. Each lottery ticket is £2. If you play the Wednesday and Saturday draw every week for a year (52 x 2 x 2) that works out at £208. 28 percent of that £208 goes to ‘good causes’ = £58.24. 20 percent of that £58.24 goes to sport = £11.64.
Every dedicated twice-weekly Lottery player therefore is part of Team GB by contributing £11.64 per year to a sports charity or funding body.
For less than £12, you can grab that claim for yourself.
I will be doing so. In a climate where gambling behaviour is becoming ever more problematic, let’s bypass state-sponsored betting and make those contributions ourselves. Once this post is sorted, I’ll be writing a cheque to my local athletics club, a place where my brother trained and now his children do. I’ll even surpass the 20 percent of 28 percent of 104 tickets in my donation. Will you join me? Whatever you can afford, make a direct contribution to a nearby sports club. Come 2020 in Tokyo, or even in 2024, you will know that you truly have been part of the Olympic team for someone.