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Seven betting companies are live-streaming FA Cup games

8th January, 20:18

Seven UK betting websites are live-streaming FA Cup matches as part of a TV and media rights deal struck by the English Football Association which runs until 2024, despite the governing body having announced an end to all sponsorships with gambling companies in 2017.

Campaigners against the enormous growth of gambling companies' association with football have criticised the deal, which offers people the ability to watch live FA Cup matches exclusively on betting sites, usually if they have had a bet on that site or have an account with money in it.

In Britain Bet365, the giant gambling company owned by the Coates family, who also own Stoke City, has the rights as part of the deal, along with Betfair, William Hill, Coral, Ladbrokes, Unibet and Paddy Power. The FA does not sell the rights to these betting companies directly; it has sold global rights on the FA Cup to the marketing company IMG for a reported $4 million (€3.6 million) a year, and IMG sells the packages on. In addition to the seven companies which have bought the rights to show the matches in the UK, IMG has sold similar streaming rights to other betting sites internationally; the company declined to provide a list of those companies.

Although the deals have been running since the start of last season, the FA is facing particular criticism now because it used the third-round matches last weekend as an opportunity to promote its "take a minute" campaign to improve mental health.

In response to the criticism, the FA emphasised that the media deals were concluded, via IMG, before the decision was taken to sever sponsorships with betting companies. The governing body has said it will review the sale of betting rights to FA Cup matches before the rights deals are renewed for the 2024-25 season.

"The FA agreed a media rights deal with IMG in early 2017, part of which permits them to sell the right to show live footage or clips of FA Cup matches to bookmakers," an FA spokesman said.

"This deal was agreed before we made a clear decision on the FA's relationship with gambling companies in June 2017 when we ended our partnership with Ladbrokes.

"We will review this element of the media rights sales process ahead of tendering rights to the new cycle from the 2024-25 season onwards. Leagues and clubs continue to govern their own relationships with gambling companies."

When the FA ended its then official betting partnership with Ladbrokes and all sponsorships with betting companies in May 2017, it said that it followed a three-month review of its approach as football's governing body, "taking betting sponsorship, whilst being responsible for the regulation of sports betting within the sport's rules".

A month earlier Joey Barton, then playing for Burnley, had been given an 18-month ban by the FA for breaching the prohibition on players gambling. Barton then publicly stated that he had a gambling addiction, and pointed to betting companies' increasingly heavy involvement in sponsorship and other associations with football, including the FA's high-profile partnership with Ladbrokes.

IMG, which bought the media rights from the FA to run for six years from last season, packages rights for betting companies with live streaming through its IMG Arena operation streaming, which says on its website: "We specialise in bringing sport and the sports betting industry closer together via our federation services and world-class sports content."

Sports included in the IMG Arena betting deals include football, tennis, golf, basketball and T20 cricket, with "more than 22,800 events, which are served to more than 100 operators worldwide".

Dr Darragh McGee of the University of Bath, who has conducted extensive research on the "dire consequences" for some men's mental and financial health of excessive gambling on football, said the sale of FA Cup broadcasting rights to gambling companies was "an alarming new dimension in the 'gamblification' of football, which is already saturated with targeted advertising campaigns, sponsorship of high-profile clubs, and naming rights to stadia and supporter events.

"In effect, it means that Bet365 and other betting companies can become primary gatekeepers for public access to live sporting coverage. This further incentivises gambling participation among fans, including young people in vulnerable situations and groups. At a time when the harms associated with online sports gambling are increasingly transparent, the FA's decision to prioritise corporate gain over the protection of public health and sporting integrity demonstrates a lack of moral leadership."

Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative party leader who co-chairs a cross-party group of MPs on gambling reform, said the deal was unethical: "I intend to ask the government to look carefully at any funding we're giving the FA. . . The idea that you hand to a betting company the ability to use the incentive of watching football games, linked to membership, runs counter to the FA's own statements with regard to reducing their reliance on betting.

"It's no excuse that this happened before they took that step. They should have reviewed it [the deal] and cancelled it."

Nicky Morgan, appointed British minister for culture, media and sport by Prime Minister Boris Johnson after the election, tweeted that she hoped the FA would reconsider the arrangement.

Bet365 stressed in a statement that its commercial arrangement was through the deal with IMG, not directly with the FA, and that nobody has to bet on an FA Cup match to watch the stream. The company said requiring people to have placed a bet in the previous 24 hours, or to have a funded account, "importantly ensures that all such customers are fully verified to prevent under-18s from accessing the service. Bet365 believes that these streaming services provide added value to its customers and enable them to watch FA Cup matches that they might not otherwise have been able to see."

Betfair said the FA Cup matches on its site were available to people signed up to an account with money in it, and it was not necessary to place a bet in order to watch matches.

The five other companies have been approached for comment.