Sportech, the company that owns the three main pools operators – Littlewoods, Vernons and Zetters – today launches the New Football Pools, kicking off with a £6m promotional campaign.
It may prove an uphill struggle for Sportech, whose franchise lies fairly low in the league table of gambling games. At its peak, the pools was played by 10m people and occupied a central part of the Saturday routine. Now it’s played by only 700,000. In terms of decline, it's on a par with Leeds United's.
Indeed, the premier league of flutters now belongs to online gambling – a hugely popular phenomenon driven by the broadband boom and hefty marketing muscle – and the National Lottery. While the former draws the hardened gamblers, the Lottery mops up the casual family market, with its user-friendly system. Just picking six numbers is perhaps more appealing for the casual gambler than the old pools trauma of spending an hour watching Grandstand’s bleeping vidiprinter, waiting to see who won out of Doncaster and Barnsley.
But Sportech clearly sniffs signs of a giant-killing spree, and has snazzed up its offering in an attempt to draw fans back. Two simpler games will run in parallel with the main 49-match draw, offering a much larger number of smaller prizes than the main draw’s £1m-plus jackpot. Punters will also be able to play in new ways. As well as the traditional coupons, the pools will be available online and through Littlewoods’ high-street betting shops.
The life of the pools shows just how far the goalposts have shifted. Back in 1961, the year that footballers' £20 salary cap was abolished and Fulham’s Johnny Haynes (pictured) became the country’s first £100-a-week player (and Spurs were actually a decent team), Viv Nicholson famously vowed to ‘spend, spend, spend’ the £152k won on the pools by her miner husband, Keith. That’d be £2.2m in today’s money. Viv blew half the money on parties, hairdos, cars and clothes. The rest, as George Best would have put it, she just wasted.