Bratwurst, beer and atmosphere: top level German football has long been synonymous with a certain brand of experience. But more recently, betting has inescapably been added to the mix, with adverts a constant on TV, in stadiums and in clubs’ branding. For many, it’s just part of the background noise but for some, it’s devastating.
“It has become normalized, but it’s not,” Thomas Melchoir told DW. “If you have a problem with it, nothing will be normal anymore. I lost €800,000 to the sports betting companies and now I’m in prison and it’s paid for by the taxpayer. It’s good business for the betting companies, they get their profits but they don’t have to deal with the harm.”
Thomas Melchior’s gambling addiction led him to prison
Melchior was talking over the phone while on parole from an open prison in Dresden, where he is serving the final four months of a sentence that began in January 2019. The 43-year-old was imprisoned on fraud charges after resorting to criminal activities to fund a habit that started with a €10 bet on a Bayern Munich match that made him €1 profit. Then a bank employee, Melchior saw an advert at halftime in a Champions League match against Rapid Vienna in 2005 with Bayern 1-0 up. The 10% return for such a dead cert Bavarian win seemed a smart return on investment. Bigger wins, and even bigger losses followed.
“I lost everything,” said Melchior, who has started a consultancy business to help others in similar positions and written a book, Mein Leben ist Kein Spiel (My Life is Not a Game) about his experiences. “Relationships, contact with my parents, my job. I lost everything I could lose and the last thing I had to lose was me, to commit suicide. But I didn’t do it, and I’m happy that I didn’t.”
It’s stories like Melchior’s that have made the relationship between football and gambling a topic of discussion in world football. Earlier this week, Unsere Kurve, an umbrella organization of fan groups from German clubs, called for widespread reforms including: clubs and organizations to halt new gambling sponsorship deals from July this year, half of any existing gambling deals to be spent on addiction prevention measures and a ban on advertising.
Markus Sotirianos, from Unsere Kurve, told DW that “clubs and associations are delivering their audience to the sports betting industry” for financial gain, with little regard for the consequences.
An advert for DFB partner Bwin runs alongside the word ‘sports betting’ in the German Cup
“The immense presence in the media now makes it impossible to follow football without being bothered by sports betting adverts,” he added. “It changes the perception of football and thus its culture, because it is no longer just about the game on the pitch, but whether the betting slip is right. The appropriation of football for the purpose of financial exploitation of fans is therefore a problem for everyone and must end.”
A few days earlier, another Bundesliga club, RB Leipzig, announced a betting partnership with UK-based firm 888, with significant changes to German gambling laws in 2020 making such international link ups easier to manage. Boasts about “TV-relevant advertising presence” and 888’s ability to “fit our (RB’s) philosophy and orientation” are following by a line stating that the company’s motto ‘Safer. Better. Together’ “demonstrates its commitment to safe and responsible sports betting.” The familiarity of such lines do not make them less contentious to some.
Though the most recent to announce a deal, the Red Bull-owned club are far from outliers, with most clubs in the top flight, and many beneath it, entering in to such partnerships. Bwin, the company that Melchior placed his first bet with, are partners of the German Football Association (DFB) who are responsible for the national team, women’s Bundesliga, German Cup and lower leagues. They are also involved with a number of clubs, including Borussia Dortmund, Union Berlin, Cologne, St. Pauli and Dynamo Dresden.
The dire financial straits many clubs have found themselves in as a result of the coronavirus pandemic appears to have made such lucrative deals irresistible, even to clubs who generally pride themselves on a social conscience. There is currently nothing illegal about advertising gambling as there is for tobacco, for example. Nevertheless, there is a groundswell of opinion that the devastating addictions that make up a significant proportion of those companies’ profits mean stricter legislation is required.
Betting firms like this one are now banned from advertising on shirts in La Liga
Such moves have already been made in Spain, where gambling companies are no longer permitted to advertise on the front of Spanish football shirts or inside stadiums, while gambling companies generally can only advertise in a four hour window between 1 and 5am. Italy imposes a similar ban, but the financial impact of the pandemic has led to calls for it to be lifted. Meanwhile in England, a ban on shirt advertising is being considered, which would affect nearly half of Premier League clubs. Such legislation is generally met with frustration from clubs, who claim they need the gambling revenue to survive.
So far, in Germany, no such restrictions exist. DW contacted the DFB and DFL (German Football League), who run the top two divisions. So far there has been no response but both have previously laid out their stance when announcing new betting deals.
“In the DFL’s view, the ability to promote sports betting is a key tool for guiding the desire to gamble into orderly and supervised channels. This plays an essential role in the functioning regulation of sports betting, as it prevents the establishment of grey and black markets,” said the organization when renewing a longstanding partnership with Tipico in December 2020. The contract runs until the end of the 2024-25 season.
On announcing a far-reaching partnership with Bwin in 2019, the DFB stressed that: “Together with our partner, we will also place a strong focus on integrity and addiction prevention.” The DFL and DFB have also combined on a project called ‘Together Against Gambling Manipulation – don’t fix the game!’ which also purports to deal wiith addiction issues. It is unclear how successful this has been.
For Melchior, it’s nowhere near enough. “I think it’s completely the wrong sign, there are so many other companies you could have as a partner that aren’t sports betting,” he said. “The money comes from people who suffer a lot. And it’s not just the addict. Like for me, it’s not just me it’s the people around me. My parents, my brother, my grandparents, a lot of people that are affected, who paid me money, who worry a lot.”
One betting firm paid for an all expense trip to London to watch Chelsea
Melchior plans to continue campaigning to untangle the relationship between football, gambling and addiction, believing the betting companies should show much more corporate responsibility in addressing the harms their products and promotions can cause. He tells the story of one UK betting company flying him to London to watch Chelsea play Liverpool, putting him up in a hotel and sending him expensive gifts. At the time he was losing about €10,000 a month on their site.
Though he’s keen to take responsibilty for his own actions, Melchior is concerned about the impact that such widespread gambling promotion can have on children getting in to football, or sports more widely. What was once a pastime on the fringes of a game has now become an essential part of a multibillion euro product. But at what cost?
Edited by James Thorogood