Leicester City have been urged to end their relationship with multiple betting firms by a mother who says her husband took his own life because of a gambling addiction.
The Foxes have more betting partnerships than any other professional team in English football, with ties to five of the 31 gambling sponsors in the Premier League.
But Annie Ashton, whose husband Luke was a huge Leicester fan, says she cannot take her 11-year-old son to games because gambling advertising around the pitch is “a reminder of the thing that killed his dad”.
She told BBC Sport: “Luke loved going to football with his son, so I promised I’d take him to football games to continue the tradition.
“But while there, we would just see gambling adverts flashing around the pitch. It made my son feel uncomfortable. He sinks right into his seat.
“He asked me why the adverts are there and I couldn’t give him an answer.
“For him, it’s a reminder of the thing that killed his dad. For an 11-year-old it’s a challenging thing to get your head around and when I can’t give him the answers, we walk out of there not knowing.”
Annie has written a letter to the 2016 Premier League champions asking them to change their policy so she can take her son back to watch games at the King Power Stadium.
She said she was “really shocked” to learn the club had five betting partners and says she fears for other children who might also be discouraged from going because of the adverts on match days.
In response to the letter, Leicester said it would invite her to meet club representatives to discuss the issues raised.
Leicester do not have a gambling sponsor on their shirt, but adverts appear for five companies on illuminated advertising boards around the pitch, on the first-team’s training clothing and in the club programme and on its website.
Norwich City are the only Premier League club who do not have a betting partner. Tottenham, Wolves and Newcastle have three, Everton and Burnley have two and the remaining 13 teams have one gambling sponsor each.
A Leicester spokesperson said: “The club is committed to activating all of its commercial partnerships responsibly and shares the resolve of stakeholders throughout sport to ensure gambling is safe and appropriately regulated.
“We support the Premier League’s contribution to the government review [of the Gambling Act] and await its recommendations.”
‘It would be nice if Luke’s legacy led to changes’
Annie only discovered the magnitude of her husband’s addiction three weeks after he took his own life in April, and attributes it to free bets offered on horse racing. An inquest into Luke’s death has been adjourned until January.
She says Luke was in control of bets he placed on football, but when he started betting on racing during a period of furlough, it became unmanageable. Annie has since campaigned for a change in law, called Luke’s Law, to stop gambling firms offering free bet bonuses. A petition she started has attracted almost 30,000 signatures.
Asked what she would say to Leicester at a meeting, she replies: “If Leicester can tell me why a potentially really harmful product is advertised around the pitch, that has nothing to do with the sport, then maybe I can give that answer to my son [about why they are there],” she said.
“But I don’t think there is going to be a good enough answer, because I don’t feel like gambling advertising around a pitch is there for anyone’s benefit. There are children there, sat next to us. They don’t need to see it; they don’t know what it is. But it’s flashing around the pitch, so their eyes will be drawn to it when the match is being played.”
She adds: “I’d like to tell the club about Luke. I’d tell them about their biggest fan, and ask: do the adverts need to be there?
“It would be nice if Luke’s legacy was for them to make changes to stop that happening in the future. They are now part of a problem. It’s devastating.”
Football teams are allowed to have gambling sponsors by law. However, the issue is being debated as part of the Gambling Act review, with a government white paper expected early next year. The Premier League and English Football League (EFL) have both contributed to the review.
Campaigners have called for an end to all gambling advertising in football because of the potential for harm. A recent Public Health England report estimates there are 409 gambling-related suicides in England each year.
But the EFL says the money provides vital funds for teams and claims there is “no evidence” that adverts increase the number of problem gamblers – of which there are 245,000 in England, according to a 2018 study by NHS Digital.
‘I now have to pick up the pieces’
Annie describes football’s relationship with gambling as “unnecessary”.
She says: “In the future if gambling becomes distant from football, they will feel ashamed and look back and think, ‘Wow, we did that?’ Why would we ever have gambling advertised in a sport? I don’t think it’s for anyone’s benefit within the community or the football world.
“To think about the children and the next generation of football players, they should definitely consider that this is the time when they could start making positive steps into taking it away from a sport which people genuinely love.
“Luke started off with the odd football bet and was what would be considered a responsible gambler but that changed, and that can happen to anyone.
“Free bets are not free. They’re dangerous. They hook you into potentially dangerous, risky products that can have devastating consequences.
“I would never in a million years have thought Luke was gambling to an extent where he was going to end his life and I now have to pick up those pieces. There are no words to describe the shock. If it happened to Luke, it could have happened to anyone.
“It’s going to happen to the next generation of gamblers, who are now taking up those free-bet offers and be the next suicides in a couple of years.”
A spokesperson for the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC), which represents the gambling industry, said its members spend millions of pounds on problem gambling prevention and treatment programmes.
“The BGC’s largest members committed to spend an additional £100m for the treatment of problem gambling and we are also spending £10m on the Young People’s Gambling Harm Prevention Programme,” it said.
“Millions of people enjoy a bet and the overwhelming majority do so safely, and we are encouraged by a recent report by the Gambling Commission that showed the rate of problem gambling in the UK fell from 0.6% to 0.3% over the past year.
“But we have taken steps to reduce the exposure of young people to betting adverts by introducing the whistle-to-whistle ban on TV commercials during sport before the watershed.
“And as part of sponsorship agreements, our members work closely with football clubs to promote safer gambling. We also introduced new rules to ensure children cannot view betting ads on football clubs’ social media accounts.
“We are committed to going even further and have strongly supported the government’s Gambling Review as an opportunity to further drive change.”
If you’ve been affected by issues raised in this article, there is information and support available on BBC Action Line.