by James Turrell, freelance investigative journalist
Luke Ashton, 40, of Leicester, died in April 2021 with gambling debts of £18,000. In the inquest into Ashton's death, Coroner Ivan Cartwright named betting firm Betfair and parent company Flutter UK & Ireland as an "interested person". The hearing was the first time a coroner has named a gambling operator in an inquest.
In the ten weeks leading up to his death, Ashton placed up to 100 bets daily. He had struggled with a gambling disorder since 2019 after being enticed into gambling via free bets. Being furloughed at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic triggered a relapse after he managed to pay off what he owed.
Free bets are promotional offers from bookmakers or betting sites that allow you to place a bet without using your money but with strings attached. Usually, you must rollover your bet two or three times before your winnings can be withdrawn. This tactic makes gambling more habitual, making you more likely to return with your money.
He used multiple accounts to take advantage of this aggressive marketing tactic. He soon received cross-selling promotions from the firms he gambled with. Free bets led him to begin betting on sports he did not know about, like horse racing, leading him to rack up massive losses and debts.
Cartwright stated clearly in his report that Betfair "missed opportunities which may have possibly changed the outcome [for Ashton]". Lawyers for Ashton's family raised concern that Betfair failed to flag Ashton as a problem gambler, even though he placed over 1000 bets in March 2021.
Ashton was a lifelong Leicester City Football Club fan who regularly attended matches. When his son was born, he would proudly take him along, introducing him to the sport. In an interview with The Guardian, his widow and now campaigner Annie Ashton said she wanted to carry on that tradition. However, she described how her son "picked up on the gambling ads that were flashing around the pitch straight away". She continued, "He literally sank into his seat. We’ve stopped going because it was a constant reminder".
Leicester City Football Club's links to the gambling industry
Leicester City Football Club (LCFC), like most professional football teams in England, have relationships with several gambling firms. However, finding information about these partnerships is a complex maze of patchy information.
Despite a page on LCFC's website outlining the list of their "official partnerships" with private companies, only two gambling companies are shown. But, as The Gazette can reveal, LCFC has or recently partnered with at least six gambling companies: OB Sports, HTH (since transferred to BOE), LoveBet, 6866, Kaiyun SportsParimatch.
This lack of transparency comes after analytics firm Global Data published a May report highlighting that a quarter of Leicester's commercial revenue for the 2021-22 season came from gambling-related sponsorships.
All of these companies, with the possible exception of OB Sports, operate as white-label firms. White-label companies are third-party entities that operate independently of a main holding company. While they may be independent, the holding company will own a gambling licence through a national board – in the UK, they are acquired via the Gambling Commission – and are therefore responsible for regulating these firms.
Complex legal structures like this mean these third-party companies can affiliate with UK businesses like football clubs without seeking their own gambling licences. Three of these betting companies – HTH, 6866 and Kaiyun Sports – are connected to TGP Europe, Parimatch with BetVictor (BV Gaming Ltd) and LoveBet with SCGO Ltd. None of these firms have individual licences with the gambling commission.
All of the holding companies associated with Leicester have received regulatory action from the gambling commission within the last year.
Each company's sanctions were related to various rules, but most notable, particularly in light of the Ashton ruling, was their failure to comply with Social Responsibility Code 3.4.1. This code requires "licensees to interact with customers in a way which minimizes the risk of customers experiencing harms associated with gambling, and to take into account the commission's guidance on customer interaction".
All firms received some form of financial penalty of over £300,000.
Parimatch's renewed partnership with LCFC amidst Ukrainian sanctions
Parimatch, previously operational in Ukraine, was sanctioned by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky over its connections to Russia in the Ukraine-Russian war.
Parimatch were among several companies accused of "[working] against Ukraine, withdrew funds from [the] state and financed various Russian schemes". Ukraine suspended the company from trading for 50 years.
They have denied any wrongdoing, and the sanctions are currently under review. "As an international company proud of its strong Ukrainian roots, Parimatch will remain an unwavering supporter of Ukrainian sovereignty in the face of Russia's illegal war of aggression", a spokesperson said.
Despite the sanctions, LCFC has just renewed their partnership with Parimatch.
In a statement on their website, Harj Hir, Head of Partnerships at LCFC, said: "We've enjoyed a successful relationship with Parimatch since they first joined the club at the start of the 2020/21 season, and we're delighted to extend our partnership with them. We've helped to grow each other's international profile over the past few years, and we now look forward to building on that success".
A historic inquest
Make no mistake, LCFC were not responsible for Luke Ashton's death. His gambling disorder and the emotional devastation it caused and ultimately led to his actions could have happened had he been born elsewhere or supported another team.
But what has occurred has drawn a spotlight on gambling-related suicides, of which there are 250 to 650 completed gambling-related suicides in the UK each year. Since Ashton's death, his wife has become a significant gambling reform campaigner. She has petitioned LCFC to sever all ties with the gambling industry.
After their relegation from the Premier League, the club will play in the EFL Championship for the 23/24 season. Sky Bet sponsors the whole of the English Football League, including the EFL Championship. Their brand will appear in every stadium Leicester play next season.
For those watching on TV, supporters will see a gambling advertisement every five seconds.
The Gazette has contacted LCFC for a comment.
- If gambling affects your mental health, Samaritans are here – day or night, 365 days a year. You can call them for free on 116 123, email them at email@example.com, or visit www.samaritans.org to find your nearest branch.