Denise Coates the billionaire boss of gambling firm Bet365
For ardent football fans such as myself, the third round of the FA Cup holds a special magic. It allows the lowliest teams to test their mettle against the Premier League giants – and, just occasionally, triumph against all odds.
Browsing through the fixture list last weekend as I decided which of the 32 matches to watch on TV, I was puzzled by the scheduled kick-off times.
Each had been delayed by 60 seconds, so that – for example – a game that ought to have started at 3pm began at 3.01pm.
It turned out that this was the latest initiative dreamed up by the Football Association, who wanted to use that minute's pause to raise awareness of mental illness. The idea, called Heads Up, was publicly endorsed by the Duke of Cambridge, the FA's president, who featured in a campaign video screened at many grounds.
As football is 'one of the most powerful and unifying forces in our society', he said he hoped it would help in 'shattering the stigma' that surrounds mental health.
In making this well-meaning pronouncement, it seems unthinkable that Prince William could have known about the disgraceful, money-grabbing deal that had been struck between English football's governing body and the online gambling giant, Bet365.
By selling the broadcasting rights to the majority of last weekend's cup ties – via a third party – to a betting company whose slick marketing ploys lure countless punters into addiction, the FA has made a mockery of its campaign to improve the nation's psychological wellbeing.
Truly, this cosy, arrangement makes one wonder which planet the blazered brigade who run our national sport – funded with £30million of taxpayers' money – are living on.
Haven't they read expert studies which put the number of 'problem' gamblers as high as 400,000, with a further 1.5million classed as 'at risk'? Don't they know that, each year, more than 500 habitual gamblers will feel desperate enough to commit suicide?
To watch the action on Bet365's site, fans had to place a wager before kick-off or open an account with a £5 deposit
For all the avuncular advice doled out by Bet365's geezerish frontman Ray Winstone – 'remember, gamble responsibly' – don't they understand that, for many young men, online betting can be as addictive as crack cocaine?
Not long ago, during an investigation into the dangers of internet betting, I attended a meeting of Gamblers Anonymous in Stoke–on–Trent, where Bet365 is based in a sleek, concrete-and-glass HQ, and heard their harrowing stories.
Among the group was 'Gerry', an articulate, middle-aged businessman who appeared far too level-headed to become hooked on 'games' that can drain the money from your bank account with the speed of a suction pump.
Feeling bored, one day, however, he had opened an online gambling account and fluttered a few pounds – and within a couple of years he had lost 'hundreds of thousands', along with his house, his wife and family.
The other members of the group were in similarly desperate straits. One young man had spent three days and nights gambling online in his parked car without any sleep. His spree only ended when his parents alerted the police, who found him slumped over the wheel, phone in hand, thousands of pounds in debt.
All the kick-offs were delayed by one symbolic minute to publicise a mental health campaign backed by Prince William, the FA's president
The addicts I met were reluctant to blame any specific betting company. Most had opened accounts with several, and in terms of marketing ploys designed to hook punters, they said, they were all equally as bad.
In the grip of their gambling fever, they would have bet on anything from an obscure tennis match in some far-flung country to the winner of Strictly Come Dancing. Nonetheless, as they were all male and most were sports fans, several of them had started by betting on football.sonos sonos One (Gen 2) - Voice Controlled Smart Speaker with Amazon Alexa Built-in - Black read more