Many Nigerian football supporters and enthusiasts have greeted the new football season in major European countries with excitement and anticipation.
In the next eight months, football crazy Nigerians will have the opportunity to watch their favourite clubs challenge for honours in England, Spain, Germany, Italy, France and other countries.
The new season has kicked off in England, where the English Premier League (EPL) – perhaps the most popular football league among Nigerians – has already sparked thrill among fans.
On Sunday, Manchester United thrashed Chelsea 4-0 in what many considered a baptism of fire for Chelsea’s new manager and former club legend, Frank Lampard.
Action in the French Ligue 1 has also lifted football fans’ spirits and the prospect of adding the German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A and Spanish La Liga to the mix further heightens the delight.
However, there is another kind of excitement about the new football season brewing among a totally different class of Nigerians.
For this group of football followers, the new season doesn’t merely offer excitement and rekindle their passion for the beautiful game. It is an avenue to make money through sports betting.
The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that over the past decade, sports betting has become one of the fasted growing sectors in Nigeria and the proliferation of betting shops is not hard to observe, even by the uninitiated.
Every week, gamblers forecast outcomes of football matches and stake some money on odds with the hope of making a fortune.
Some uniform men were spotted on Sunday at Asokoro Bet9ja centre betting as Chelsea and Man United, others played.
NAN in Abuja, observed that most of the people patronising betting centre were policemen and young adults between the ages of 18 to 25 years.
Whether they are patronising some of the numerous betting shops which dot almost every neighbourhood or playing directly from their mobile phones, many Nigerians have come to embrace the trend of making (or losing) money from sports betting.
A 2018 estimate puts the Nigerian betting industry’s worth at over five billion-naira a-day and it is believed that more than 30 per cent of the entire population is actively involved in it.
An economic expert, Mr Kingsley Kosisochukwu, noted betting has the potential of bringing substantial economic benefits for the country.
“Increased employment and income, increased tax revenues, enhanced tourism and recreational opportunities are also positive effects of legalised gambling.
“Also, it has the potential of re-distributing wealth. We have some people that have become millionaires overnight through betting.
“These are people that probably would never have become rich if they did not gamble. So healthy gambling is good for the nation’s economy,” he said.
In contrast, a financial analyst, Dr Patricia Auta, said that betting was a bad idea and the biggest was the creation of more addicted gamblers at a younger age.
“If you combine gambling, sports and smartphones, you’re leading sport fans down a very dangerous path to financial ruin.
“The younger generation, that is the generation that doesn’t know a world without smartphones and the internet is showing nearly double the gambling addiction rate of the next-oldest generation.
“The effect is increased crime due to bankruptcy and bad debts.
“As access to money becomes more limited, gamblers often resort to crime in order to pay debts.
“Studies have shown that gamblers are more likely to commit offences as fraud, stealing, embezzlement, forgery, robbery, and blackmail,” she said.
Meanwhile, a reliable source from the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) told NAN that the sport betting industry currently does not attract tax of any kind.
The source said that the service had already held series of meetings with the National Lottery Commission and the betting companies operating in the country to see how the industry would start paying its fair share of tax.
“We plan to introduce VAT and possibly withholding tax on betting.
“We currently don’t have a legislation to cover this and that is why we have highlighted this in the reviewed National Tax Policy.
“The policy is ready and once a Minister of Finance is appointed, we will submit the proposal,” the source said.
An agent at a popular sports betting outlet in Nyanya, a suburb of Abuja, simply identified as Mike, told NAN that he could make as much as N85,000 in a week, depending on how the games turned out.
While sports betting is regulated by the National Lottery Regulatory Commission and its contribution to the economy is undeniable, many football enthusiasts worry about its dark side.
John Atime also told NAN at a popular viewing centre in Nyanya, “I sparingly stake bets, most times out of passion and fun, so I don’t worry if I win or not. But there are others who survive on betting.
“Personally, I believe that being involved too much in betting can kill the passion for the game.
“Sometimes you see a fan hoping for his club to concede a goal or lose a match because he has forecast goal-goal,”
However, Adewale Sikiru, a phone vendor at the popular Banex Plaza in Abuja, disagreed with Atime, saying there was nothing wrong with making money from one’s passion.
“Football is a big business and players are earning off their passion so why can’t fans earn money too? In fact, placing a bet enhances your passion because something is at stake at personal level,” he said.
Indeed, football is a big business and sports betting is one of its major drivers.
Globally, sports betting is a multi-billion-dollar industry and to put things into perspective, 10 out of 20 EPL clubs have betting companies as their sponsors for the 2019/2020 football season.
In addition, at least two divisions of the English league are sponsored by a betting company and here in Nigeria we have seen betting companies sponsor national football leagues.
But should we close our eyes to the realities of addiction, depression and underage betting because of the economic returns it offers?
In 2016, a young man identified as Uchenna was reported to have taken his own life after losing a N22,000 sports bet in Uyo.
In 2018, police in Ilorin confirmed that a 25-year-old man committed suicide after he lost out on a bet over the outcome of a European Champions League match.
The lawful age for betting eligibility in Nigeria is 18, but many sports betting outlets visited by NAN in Abuja glaringly admit underage gamblers.
Football being the most followed sport in Nigeria, betting appears to have become a complementary lifestyle among its supporters and many of those supporters are under the age of 18.
Many adults also expose minors to betting by sending them to betting shops to process already generated forecasts.
Mike told NAN that opting to play online could guard against this, although it would hurt agents like him.
“Gamblers can create their own account and play via the mobile app. Winnings are credited to their accounts which they can transfer into their bank accounts.
“It is wrong to encourage underage people to get involved,” he said.
With privilege comes responsibility. Thus, betting companies should consider it a social responsibility to invest in enlightenment campaigns.
Mr Magnus Ekechukwu, Assistant Director, Public Affairs, National Lottery Regulatory Commission (NLRC), says the commission is contributing immensely to the socio-economic development of the country
Ekechukwu told NAN in Abuja the NLRC Act is defined in such a way and manner that it includes and covers sport betting activities,
“Lottery and gaming have been used all over the world as a tool of social economic development, wealth distribution, empowerment, poverty alleviation and so forth and so on.
“But beyond that, the proceeds from lottery and gaming, we use to provide what we called good courses in Nigeria which is intervention in the infrastructural development of the country by the government.