August 15, 2023 - 7:00am

As the Premier League kicked off again this weekend, fans were greeted with a familiar sight: betting adverts. Despite an agreement from clubs to remove gambling firm sponsorship from the front of matchday shirts from 2026, this season seven out of 20 top division sides are set to feature a betting company as their main sponsor. 

Gambling remains a major problem in the UK. The NHS has this year doubled its number of betting-centred clinics; 138,000 Britons are reportedly problem gamblers, with a further 1.3 million assessed as a “moderate risk”; over 13.5 million use betting apps. Watching a Premier League match fans will see a gambling logo, on average, every 16 seconds, with half-times punctuated by the vision of Ray Winstone’s floating head.

But there is also another form of betting taking place — one without the ruinous financial consequences. Just as the league season commenced, its virtual equivalent started too. Fantasy Premier League, or FPL, has, at the time of writing, a little under nine million registered users (though it is unclear how many of these are bots or duplicate teams) who compete to score the most points from real-life goals, assists and clean sheets. These may sound like the hallmarks of betting, yet FPL might actually be an antidote, not a catalyst, for compulsive gambling.

The online fantasy football community is vast. On social media forums such as the Subreddit r/FantasyPL, which boasts just shy of 700,000 contributors, fans discuss player injuries, squad form and fixture lists in extensive detail. But beneath the surface, there are also those who credit the game for helping them overcome, or at least manage, a previous betting addiction. One user claims that the activity has “helped me cut down my gambling”, with another concurring that FPL “scratch[es] the same itch that betting used to”, albeit without the potential of losing huge sums of money. Others cite it as “one of the healthier addictions to have”. 

These discussions are not confined to Reddit. On GamCare, a support website for recovering addicts, a frequently suggested corrective to gambling impulses is starting a fantasy football league with friends. As a hobby that can capture some of the thrill of betting, divorced from financial risk, and combine it with a social element absent from placing bets online, users cite FPL as a “deterrent” for their addiction, which can “steer [them] away” from their old habits. There are Twitter accounts dedicated to giving out tips on fantasy football success, some of which provide testimonies outlining how the game saved them from suicidal thoughts stemming from compulsive gambling.

Inevitably, of course, some FPL players’ involvement might push them towards, rather than away from, gambling addiction. A BBC investigation published at the weekend highlighted the prevalence of betting promotions on popular podcasts and social media feeds based on (but independent from) the FPL game. It warned that those with existing compulsive traits may not be best served by an extra excuse to put their prediction skills to the test. 

It is striking, though, that the BBC investigation quoted several FPL players who feel that the game is “a coping mechanism to manage an existing gambling addiction”. It isn’t a straightforward cure for what can be a serious condition but, as a growing online community can attest, fantasy football might just be a more effective deterrent for problem gamblers than the current, demonstrably inadequate measures.

is UnHerd’s Assistant Editor, Newsroom.