Our Premier League opener against Sheffield United this evening will be a big moment for me – and not just for what happens on the pitch.
This will be the first time in my recovery from gambling addiction that I will be watching the club I love play a league match without a gambling sponsor on the front of our shirt.
This is also the first season I can enjoy as an adult without being plagued by an illness that drove me to within a hair’s breadth of taking my own life.
Having helped the success of Heart of the Holte over the years, I am sure there will be some who read this who are aware of me. There will be others who know me personally, but this will be the first time they’ve come to learn about my torment.
Gambling addiction, often unlike drugs and alcohol, hides in plain sight.
My main reason for writing this article is to call on the support of my extended family – the Villa fan base. Not from an emotional perspective, as that’s what I have my inner circle for. My close friends and family, along with the recovery community, have been my rock since earlier this year when I finally accepted I was powerless over my urges to gamble.
This week I’m joining other men and women affected by gambling to take part in a charity event called The Big Step. We will walk 130 miles in a bid to end gambling advertising, sponsorship and promotion in football.
During our trek of the Midlands we will stop at seven football clubs, all of whom that have at least one partnership with a gambling company.
Following our visit to neighbours West Bromwich Albion (they have two betting partners) we will walk four miles to my church, Villa Park.
Throughout the 2010s Aston Villa Football Club chose to have a gambling operator on the front of the famous claret and blue jersey in seven out of 10 seasons.
In a ground-breaking move, between 2008 and 2010 the club ditched front-of-shirt commercial sponsorships to instead help raise awareness of Acorns, the children’s hospice that the club and its fans have such an affinity with. This, at a time when things on the pitch were going well and we were knocking on the door of the Champions League places.
This demonstrates how Premier League football clubs can easily refrain from entering gambling relationships. Take last season’s one-year front-of-shirt deal with W88 as an example. This was worth just £6 million.
For the same period, it’s estimated our television revenue accounted for £106.1 million.
There is a trend in which football clubs see a rise in kit merchandise revenue whenever they move away from betting companies as front-of-shirt sponsors.
Both Villa and Everton are now being sponsored by digital car sales platform Cazoo; Villa were with W88 while the Merseyside club were previously sponsored by Kenya-based gambling firm Sport Pesa, and both clubs have seen a dramatic increase in shirt sales of at least 50%.
This tells me that football fans do not wish to be walking billboards for gambling operators. Children should be able to wear the same shirts as their idols, as should anyone who is part of a community in which gambling is frowned upon.
The reason I am undertaking The Big Step this week is because I wish to stop the normalisation of gambling through the sport that I hold so dear. I want to do my bit in helping to protect our future generations from the same gambling-related harm that I endured for 15 years.
The Big Step is a project by Gambling with Lives, a charity set up by bereaved families of young men and women who took their own life because of their gambling addiction.
It is a situation we believe cannot continue. Football’s relationship with gambling will not change overnight, but public support for an end to gambling sponsorship and advertising is growing and you can help by signing the petition on Change.org here.
Once signed, I’d really appreciate it if you could share with friends, family and work colleagues.
Finally, should you be reading this and battling an addiction to gambling yourself or know someone who is, then please reach out.
Since my recovery I founded the All Bets Are Off podcast, in which a group of us impacted by gambling-harm, directly or as an affected other, have spoken to a number of guests including former Manchester United and Newcastle winger Keith Gillespie about their addiction, and shine the spotlight on groups that are disproportionally affected by gambling-harm.
Alongside our podcasts there is a comprehensive support section which will signpost you to a whole host of charities and organisations. For more information visit www.allbetsareoff.co.uk and go and give us a follow on Twitter @AllBetsAreOff_.
Thank you for your support.
UP THE VILLA!
Written by Ryan Pitcher