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The Illusion Of Success Through Luck

The big news from last week, besides the acrimonious party primaries and its trail of sore losers, was SportsPesa’s mega jackpot. Ksh 221, 301,602 Million! Sweet Jesus! The build up to the announcement of the lucky winner was on rotation on TV, radio, social media and the newspapers. You could not have missed it if you tried. Before I am accused (to switch to Kenyanese) “of catching feelings”, I have no issues admitting that 221 M is a serious payout for a man of my modest means. I can think of several personal problems that kind of cash injection can solve in my life.

The lucky SportsPesa mega jackpot winner was Samuel Abisai. Overnight the whole country knew his name and face. Abisai became the mascot of Get-Rich-Quick schemes and the best promotion sports gambling could have hoped for. A regular Joe had changed his fortunes with a little investment of Kshs 200. Here was a legit way out of poverty that did not involve the back-breaking and time-consuming labor.

There has never been a stronger incentive for gambling, than a smiling jackpot winner. It is the irresistible melody of the pied piper. As the story goes, watch plenty of football, pick your bets, make a small investment and you never know, you could be the next lucky winner. After that one can retire from gambling and invest their winnings in doing some public good.

Sports betting is a legitimized and an endorsed public pass time in Kenya. It has been normalized and has spread throughout the country. People used to gather around newspaper vendors to peruse the headlines. Nowadays, they flip to the back page to make match predictions and place their bets. There are billboards all over. They mark transnational highways, standing out conspicuously near schools, urban marketplaces, beguiling impressionable youngsters with dreams of instant wealth. Several celebrity figures have become faces of betting campaigns and sport gaming endorsements are regular fare. Betting companies have secured dedicated TV slots and they occupy acres of space in the daily sports pages of our newspapers.

There is no public control, no stringent regulations that restrict betting advertising and protects minors from the persuasive advertising.

Sport betting is a billion shilling industry. The companies are big spenders and their influence is not to be taken lightly, uncannily like the big tobacco players of the yester years. I grew up at a time when tobacco advertising was glamorous and smoking irresistible. The Marlboro man was the epitome of machismo. The sleek State Express 555 cigarettes was the brand behind the prowess of the iconic blue Team Subaru World rallying champs. Embassy Lights was ‘smooth all the way”. Sweet Menthol cigarettes were for cool folks.  Sportsman with its catchy slogan, “Ni sawa hasa” was what active and rugged sporty men smoked. Benson and Hedges (B&H) was sponsoring the biggest music concerts and putting real money in promoting local musical talent. The first time I watched Kenyan hip hop pioneers Kalamashaka was at a B&H concert.

Tobacco used to be too big to be touched. Before the ban on public advertisements and sale restrictions were introduced, the legislative argument was simplistic. The tobacco companies were paying taxes and providing jobs. They were a necessary evil and to assuage the health consequences that would visit the consumers was a Ministry of Health warning in fine print; Cigarette smoking is harmful to your health.

Sports Betting is the new tobacco, good for economy, creating jobs, changing lives and the short-term consequences of addiction are no cause for concern. Not until some comprehensive study on gambling addiction is tabled. The regurgitated assurance from the regulatory authorities is the warning, “Please gamble responsibly”.

The false notion in place is that betting is recreational and harmless.  Yet, the dangers of problem gambling addiction are well documented and like HIV, gambling doesn’t discriminate across class or color lines. While politicians sell hope, betting companies sell luck. The illusion peddled is that anyone can be a winner. The thousands of losers never get to tell their side of the story and are left with the consolation that they were just unlucky. The odds of winning most jackpots is 1 to a million and you have a higher chance meeting a genie wrapped in a buibui with hooves for feet.

Kenya is fostering an addictive habit with sports betting targeting its most vulnerable citizens; the poor masses and the young. Betting companies and lotteries have graduated into major sources of revenue for companies, profiting from the desperation of the impoverished citizens. Betting ads are dominating the advertising space, enticing citizens with regular spotlights on ‘lucky winners’ overwhelmed by their one-off streak of luck and the sheer magnitude of the prize on offer. Yah, everyone can be a winner but you cannot win if you do not play. The more times you try, the better your chances.

In digital wired world, online betting is accessible with the internet and mobile technology. In a few years, we will be forced to reckon with an angst-ridden generation of junkies weaned on the instant gratification of a jackpot high, hoping to get lucky.

Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan newspaper columnist. The blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.

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