Sky Bet has come under fire for using Paul Merson in its adverts despite his well-documented struggles with gambling addiction.
The former England, Arsenal and Portsmouth forward first revealed he was battling alcohol, cocaine and gambling addictions in 1994 while still playing football professionally but recently revealed that he has suffered a relapse of his betting problems.
Despite Merson’s historic problems with betting, Sky Bet admitted that it had used him, among other Sky Sports pundits, to promote its products.
He has appeared in two ad campaigns since 2016 as part of the Soccer Saturday team, including in a TV ad that ran between November 2017 and December 2018. SkyBet said he had been excluded from new campaigns since April 2018.
Labour MP Carolyn Harris, who chairs a cross-party parliamentary group on gambling-related harm, said: “This is deeply concerning and I strongly question the judgment of Sky Bet paying someone to appear in adverts for gambling when it has had a profound negative impact on their life.”
Charles and Liz Ritchie, who set up campaign group Gambling With Lives after their son Jack killed himself following a gambling addiction, called on betting firms to stop using sports stars to advertise betting.
“Gambling with Lives applauds Paul Merson for his courage in speaking out about gambling addiction despite being put in a difficult position by SkyBet’s advertising machine,” they said.
“We call on gambling operators to stop using football celebrities to draw young fans into addictive online gambling and we call on football pundits to stop acting as ambassadors for gambling.
“SkyBet have wished Paul Merson well. We asked them to release their assessments of the addictiveness of in-game betting, but have not received a reply.
“General good wishes are easy, operators are less forthcoming on the grim reality of the mechanisms of an addiction that can cost lives.”
In television interviews this month, Merson said he had “lost millions” through gambling, which he said was a worse addiction than alcohol or cocaine.
He told Good Morning Britain: “I’ve just found that when you want to get drunk or high you have to put stuff in your body. If you don’t have the first drink you don’t get drunk. With gambling you don’t have to put anything in its just there. And it just grips you – you are constantly looking at your phone and it just grips you.”
On the ITV programme Harry’s Heroes, Merson said: “I’ve just completely lost control, I’ve completely, again. I’m digging a hole – I can’t get out of it. It’s the worst addiction in the world.”
Merson said the easy availability of gambling apps on smartphone was making his addiction hard to manage. A recent study claimed that smartphone gambling was more addictive than fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs), the controversial £100-a-spin machines due to be curbed from Monday after a long-running campaign.
“I was getting up in the morning and betting on Lithuanian under-20 basketball matches,” said Merson.
Sky Bet’s website currently offers best on multiple European basketball leagues, although it is not clear which website Merson was using.
Sky Bet admitted the company had used Merson in its commercial activity but said it was no longer doing so.
“In the circumstances we have withdrawn the limited amount of Sky Bet promotional material in which Paul had featured,” said a spokesman. “We have offered Paul professional help and will continue to provide any support and assistance Paul needs.”