In March 2019, Sky Bet’s punt on their latest TV ad landed them in something of a spot of bother. The ubiquitous sheen of a Jeff Stelling monologue, glowing with authority and fake tan, hadn’t quite come off this time. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) took particular umbrage with Stelling’s “How big is your sports noggin?” query. While seeming harmless, such inquisitive tactics are often utilised to manipulate viewers into associating knowledge with success. The more you know, the richer you’ll get.
It’s a convincing fallacy where football is concerned. Every follower of football, at every level, believes themselves to be in possession of the knowledge. Something everyone else has overlooked – the truth behind Brighton’s xG stats, or why Harry Kane is, actually, overrated.
It’s perhaps a common symptom of an increasing information overload. Exacerbated by the mid-pandemic switch to broadcasting norms, it is now possible to consume everything. Every second, goal, manager rant, facial expression, or failed short corner is up for analysis. Endless, endless analysis. To make matters worse, VAR has provided yet another polarising sticking point with yet more fine details, offside lines, slow motion. Our knowledge now extends to armpits, camera frame rates and ‘intent’. And you can’t afford to get left behind at any point. One week away from The Football Machine and you risk being castigated for not knowing that Klopp, actually, has been exposed as a fraud.
Even if you can’t, or simply don’t, subscribe to Sky, BT or Amazon, social media has eroded all notional boundaries of exclusive rights. On Twitter, pirates dominate the democratising surf with a formidable persistence. Illegal streams aren’t the virus-ladened minefield they once were – you can now watch Crystal Palace v Burnley from the relative safety of your main feed, far from the clandestine.
Those involved in Football betting’s hidden underbelly understand, more than anyone, that this warped notion of truth and knowledge is hugely profitable. Any notion of luck or chance, the very thing that keeps us watching, must be quashed at every turn.
A few months after it was pulled, the advert’s ban was overturned. The ASA had suffered a dubious change of heart; they’d been wrong. What they had previously deemed to be purveying an “erroneous perception”, turned out to be just fine. What was once an “unrealistic and exaggerated” notion of control, was no longer. They couldn’t deny Stelling his extracurricular screen time for long.
Fast forward 18 months or so, through reams of white noise ‘safer’ gambling incentives and nonsense corporate social media guffaw, and the latest Sky Bet ad looks to have learnt from its mistakes. Stelling makes no reference to ‘football brains’ or even its newer incarnation, the ‘hunch’. What can’t be said, though, can always be shown.
This time, Stelling sits in the now quotidian CGI setting – a space-age fantasy, nowhere warehouse, surrounded entirely by screens. Stats, footballers, names, numbers, goals, numbers, percentages, stats. The first truly objective viewpoint, rendered in 360 virtual reality, obliterates our protagonists’ slender grip on the material world. Rendered in nondescript animation, Stelling’s face drops as he submits to this utopian vision. All the knowledge, all together. All at once.
Stelling has achieved omnipresence, trapped in this make-believe panopticon of footballing insights. This is it. The football gambler’s all-knowing, all-seeing nirvana made real in three-dimensions. The impossible, made… visible?
In the nineteenth century, the rapid advancement of visual technologies brought about a rather substantial shift in our perception of reality. Photography, it was believed, could now document what we couldn’t – the truth. The machine could now intervene where human fallibility too often let us down, the camera could provide reality, beyond all reasonable doubt. Artists, unphased by what might’ve been a crushing blow to their industry, saw an opportunity in this and went big. Huge, warehouse-sized landscapes were painted in long sequence and rolled out in a perpetual 360-degree cycle, surrounding audiences sat in darkness. This was 4D IMAX for the industrialised age. It was an endless spectacle, succeeding in the pursuit of reality. All of the landscape, all of the time.
The Victorian spectator did not truly believe what they saw was real life, but it was alluring. Likewise, the average armchair idler doesn’t think Jeff Stelling really wastes away in the utopian football mainframe. But the impression lasts; the image seductive.
For the ASA, policing the pernicious manoeuvring of betting companies has proven challenging – even when Stelling’s right there thrusting it through your conscious. Addiction doesn’t operate solely within a verbal medium, but the burden of proof errs on the side with the most fiscal power.
Of course, the nineteenth-century panorama painting preyed upon exactly that which the most recent Sky Bet ad does – human subjectivity. Left purely to our own devices, eyes and minds regularly deceive us. VAR is yet another project propelled by the eternal, hopeless, search for a cure for human error. Technology has long been sold as the answer to this gap in our perception. But when the illusion fails, we’re inevitably left alone to our faults.