‘The big step’ tackling the unhealthy and life damaging societal issue which is sports gambling.
As a football fan I’m interested in a lot of subjects that surround the game, not merely just what happens on the pitch. I’m interested in the histories of different teams and stadiums, the kit’s and their creators and broadcasting is something that interests me also. The list is ultimately endless. However, I’m also interested in the way in which the sport makes people behave and act as supporters have, arguably rightly so, been challenged for the way in which they react and act when something that they love is considered. These attitudes can be seen in acts of hooliganism but it can also be seen in gambling as even those who you wouldn’t believe would develop related problems .. can. Thus, I wanted to talk to an organization with a clear message for the present and the future. A message which is being taken on by more and more sports clubs on a day-to-day basis. A message which has, is and always will be greatly significant.
Content and communications support member Tom Fleming took time out of his day to answer the various questions that I placed towards him.
Who first came up with the idea to create ‘the big step’ and why did they believe that this was important? Did they think that it would have a great impact on the lives of people across the country or is the group’s ambition regionalised? When was the group created and what was its first interaction with others?
James Grimes founded the Big Step back in 2019. He came up with the idea of fundraising walks to football clubs with gambling sponsors to raise awareness about gambling addiction and gambling harm, and to highlight the role that football plays in facilitating addiction. The first walk in 2019 attracted a handful of people, most of whom were recovery addicts themselves.
Later in 2019, James partnered with Gambling with Lives, a charity set up by bereaved family members who have lost their son to gambling-related suicide. GwL have been instrumental in establishing the link between gambling and suicide – there are between 250 and 650 gambling-related suicides in the UK alone each year.
Since then, there have been 4 more walks, with each growing in size and scope. We held a remote walk in March, where people could join in from their local area due to COVID and contribute steps. Over 300 people joined in on this walk, including people with no direct experience of gambling harm or addiction, and collectively walked over 1,000 miles.
In June, we organised a walk from Scotland to Wembley, which attracted a lot of media attention – we walked 300 miles in 10 days! Alongside this, we encouraged people to join in remotely from around the country. Remote walks contributed over 3,000 miles this time – well over 11 million steps!
We have a community of people up and down the country who are engaged on Twitter, which is growing all the time, and pushing for reform in gambling. This includes both individuals and other organisations.
What methods of advertising do the group do to branch their message out and how many people have been helped thus far?
As we are a small charity with limited resources, we don’t offer direct support or treatment for gambling addiction. Gambling with Lives do offer support for bereaved families who have lost loved ones to gambling-related suicide, as they are well placed to provide this. They currently support around 20 families.
Of course we can point people to different services for addiction, but our main aim is to affect and influence legislation, which we do via campaigning. Our belief is that if we can do this, there will be less people struggling with addiction, so we look to prevent rather than react – if that makes sense.
Our main communication methods are mainly social media, but we also spend time reaching out and contacting journalists, especially before one of our walks as they tend to garner quite a lot of interest, both locally and nationally.
I’ve seen across social media platforms that ‘the big step’ complete and undertake many different fundraising charity walks to raise awareness of gambling. How do these ideas come around and what are the main reasons behind the different walks and activities? How important do you believe an active mindset is when it comes to combating unhealthy addictions and obsessions and have you had any success through putting on these events etc?
Some of my answers to question one will be relevant here, but broadly, although we think that walking is positive activity, it’s not a substitute for treatment, and people struggling with addiction should always seek treatment. That being said, the walks can often serve a therapeutic purpose – they can be long and gruelling, so you need a cause to sustain your effort. It’s also therapeutic to walk with people that have similar experiences to you with gambling, and it’s a space where you can talk freely and you know you won’t be judged and that others will understand your struggles better than most.
If you could give me a story or an example of a life that you have managed to change around or a case in which you have helped out in any such manner, could you? Say if someone wanted to join ‘the big step’ to change their relationship with gambling, how would they go about doing that and how would you address their case?
Refer to question 2 for this one, as we don’t offer professional support. However, people have got in touch with us via Twitter, and we’ve been able to use our experience of gambling harm to provide peer support, which includes things like providing informal support, pointing people in the direction of services like GamStop – an online tool that blocks access to all gambling sites – or toward a service like Gamblers Anonymous or an NHS-led treatment. Twitter is often where people reach out to the community. There are between 430,000 and 1.2 million people addicted to gambling currently in the UK.
Do you believe that football clubs and the wider community could do more to shape the perspective of gambling and what club/sport is currently the best at combating social issues such as gambling? Do you believe that neutral’s perspective of a club changes if they are successful off the pitch in addressing issues that have a negative impact on lives?
Football needs to do much more and is complicit in allowing gambling to flourish. Current legislation allows gambling companies to sponsor football, but football clubs also have a choice in whether or not they decide to accept money to promote a dangerous product. We understand that money is important to clubs. However, when you weigh up the harm that gambling causes vs the money it brings in, we believe that it’s a no brainer. Clubs can find alternative sponsors too, ones that reflect the club’s values and are not just all about exploiting people to make money. Gambling can ruin lives, but we do not believe it should be banned, but we do believe that it has no place in football.
Clubs like Forest Green Rovers and Edinburgh City FC have recently publicly supported our campaign, and refused gambling sponsorship money. I would say that this has definitely shown them in a more positive light than clubs who just take gambling sponsorship money with no regard to the harm that the industry causes to fans.
This is a slightly different question to one that I have asked before and one that you may have not had to think of before but can you see the positives and enjoyment within gambling and if so, why do you think it goes on to have a negative impact on lives?
We’re aware that many people enjoy gambling, and to reiterate, we do not want to ban gambling. We’re not anti-gambling, we are anti-gambling harm. To achieve this, we are calling for proper regulation, much like with alcohol and cigarettes.
It’s important to realise that gambling isn’t a single homogenous activity: there are lots of different products, with different risks. A story we hear all too often is of people beginning gambling on football, as the marketing and advertising has merged the two products together, then getting cross sold addictive products by the industry, like online casino games – essentially an algorithm that will always win. These most dangerous products are available 24/7 online, with no stake limits. Products such as these carry addiction rates of up to 50%, much more than betting on a horse race or the outcome of a football match (not in-play).
It’s also important to realise that the gambling industry actively relies on addiction. They make around £14 billion profit in the UK each year, and of that profit, between 60 and 80% comes from just 5% of gamblers. Addiction is integral to their business model, which is why they are so resistant to regulation.
Have you had the support of many others since the group’s creation, such as well-known footballers etc who have told others about yourselves and how do you think your work has been viewed by the greater community, awards and suchlike?
Our campaign has been endorsed and supported by several MPs including Dawn Butler, Zarah Sultana, Ronnie Cowan, Margaret Ferrier, Carolyn Harris, Paul Blomfield. Peter Shilton, who holds the record for most appearances for England, has supported and shared details of our campaign. Our petition to end gambling ads and sponsorship in football was signed by Gary Lineker.
Going forwards, what are your hopes for the social issues of gambling and the group’s collective ambitions?
We are campaigning for a public-health focussed approach to be taken to gambling, much like we see now with smoking. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, smoking was advertised and marketed, and tobacco companies used to sponsor sports like F1 and snooker. However, that was banned in 2005. People can still smoke if they want – I’m sure you know where to buy a packet of cigarettes from, but I’m also sure you won’t have seen a cigarette advert in years. To protect future generations and reduce gambling harm, we want to return to a time when gambling was tolerated, but not actively promoted.
You can find ‘The Big Step’ on various social media platforms and areas, their twitter handle being @the_bigstep. Check out the great work that they do, if nothing else!