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It’s a safe bet clubs will fight curbs on gambling bonanza

Scottish football’s addiction to gambling sponsorship is chronic but other European leagues have shown it’s possible to thrive without it.

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This article first appeared in Issue 28 which was published in June 2023.

Illustration by Mark Waters

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“It is common for these industries to say that marketing’s impact on people’s behaviour is simply about the brand. In other words, it is about persuading people who drink, or gamble or whatever, to switch to a particular brand; it isn’t about getting people addicted. This is incorrect.”
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the research studied five football matches, including one between Celtic and Rangers, which kicked off at noon. In total, researchers recorded 2,595 gambling marketing references across the five games, an average of 519 per match.

It ain’t easy running the business side of Scottish football. At the heart of every senior club – from the affluent executive suites of Parkhead, Ibrox and Tynecastle to the pie stalls and community initiatives of Cappielow, Ochilview or Stark’s Park – there is a sense that every penny raised from commercial sponsorship is vital to continued success.

That success might mean regular qualification to the various European tournaments, or simply surviving the drop from League Two. Between those extremes, boards and their commercial managers are constantly in search of new deals that involve handshakes – real and virtual – with the mighty dollar.

The number of sponsorship logos across Scottish sport continues to proliferate. Football is one of the most attractive sports to advertisers, from global brands to local builders, taxi companies or chip shops. 

Commercial income is part of the game’s lifeblood. Scottish clubs cannot survive by TV income alone, an issue that continues to fuel debate as fans and owners cast envious eyes not only south of the border to the fabulously wealthy Premier League, but also to the smaller European leagues such as Norway and the Netherlands, which have proved more capable of attracting decent broadcast income than has Scotland.

Now two key areas of incomealcohol and gambling – are under closer scrutiny than ever before. Comparatively speaking, the Scottish game depends heavily on both. Its dependence on alcohol for commercial support is second only to that of Belgium among 10 top European leagues. More than half of our top clubs rely on both gambling and booze for sponsorship, in some form.

“There is a reason companies pay for that. It is hugely visible in many ways. In Scotland it is hugely visible to saturation point really,” health sciences and sport researcher Dr Richard Purves told Nutmeg. Purves, of the Institute for Social Marketing and Health at the University of Stirling, takes a keen interest in the commercial side of “sin” and its influence on sport. 

“It is common for these industries to say that marketing’s impact on people’s behaviour is simply about the brand. In other words, it is about persuading people who drink, or gamble or whatever, to switch to a particular brand; it isn’t about getting people addicted. This is incorrect — gambling operations make their money from people betting regularly, and in relatively large amounts.”

Purves and his colleagues have been researching various aspects of consumer behaviour in relation to alcohol, gambling and other vices, for several years. Their studies arrive at a time when there is growing unease on the impact on ordinary people, and especially poorer communities which are affected disproportionately badly by various addictions, especially those that can have a devastating impact on families and communities, beyond the individuals concerned.

Sponsors are no strangers to controversy. A generation ago it was not unusual for major sports to jump into deals with the big tobacco companies. The idea that a leading cigarette brand might have its name and logo all over televised events like world snooker may seem jarring now, but it was the norm during the “peak snooker” years of the 1980s.

Alcohol proclaims its self-regulated approach, in the form of the Portman Group guidelines, which prohibit certain types of commercial activity related to sport. Its targets are to avoid overt promotion of drinking to vulnerable groups and especially the young. But the Portman measures have never represented a ban on advertising or sponsorship in the wake of tobacco: in fact, the group exists as a means of promoting alcohol on behalf of the major producers and brewers that it represents.

Over recent years, the names on the shirts have changed. There are fewer alcohol-related shirt sponsors where recently there had been Tennent’s, Carling, Strongbow and Magners. To a large extent their names have been replaced by the betting giants — Betfair, Dafabet and 32Red all among those brands that have become better known via the game.

In a pre-emptive strike, as the UK government moved towards announcing new proposals to restrict gambling promotion, the English Premier League has ruled that all gambling logos be removed from participating clubs’ shirts by season 2026/27.

That puts pressure on other leagues, and other sports, to follow suit. For several leading Scottish clubs that will mean sacrificing lucrative shirt deals and chasing replacement income. The SPFL will be expected to take a lead, at a time when it is under pressure to increase income to the game rather than compromising it. Chief executive Neil Doncaster and his board may face another fractious round of negotiations with bigger clubs in particular.

In 2021, Rangers agreed a three-year extension to their shirt sponsorship deal with 32Red, believed to be worth £1.5m a year. In 2018, Celtic agreed a seven-year extension to its deal with Dafabet, described by the club as the biggest of its kind but with no figure disclosed. That expires at the end of season 2024/25.

Shirt sponsorship is a big deal in football, of course. But it is by no means the only promotional channel open to the betting industry.

Purves and his colleagues stress that while it is shirt logos that tend to be associated most closely with clubs, the visuals associated with TV are of more importance to sponsors. The whole experience of watching a match includes trackside advertising, and the ads showing within the broadcast itself. 

“Consider just how saturated the visuals can be, and the impact that can have on individuals. All through a game you can see ‘live odds’, you can have Ray Winstone popping up to encourage a punt. It is difficult to avoid such content,” Purves says.

What troubles health and social researchers is the impact on the vulnerable. Gambling addiction can be devastating. It can lead to severe financial hardship, even bankruptcy. An individual’s pursuit of money to feed his or her habit can be as damaging as that of a drug addiction. It can lead to job loss and relationship break-up. There are numerous documented suicides and mental breakdowns. As Purves has noted, the worse-off are the worst-affected.

Its defenders will say the misfortunes of the few should not prevent the majority from enjoying a flutter. Restricting gambling sponsorship or even banning it like tobacco would surely be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Plus, it would deprive Scottish football of some vital income to fund stadium improvements, or new players, or whatever clubs need to improve their lot.

The arrival of gambling as a single key source of sponsorship income came quickly to football, ushered in by the liberalisation of rules in 2005. By season 2018/19 more than half of all clubs in the English Premier League and Championship had gambling logos on their shirts. All four senior Scottish leagues and both major cup tournaments as well as three of the four professional leagues in England had gambling sponsors. A study of Match of the Day found that viewers of the BBC programme were typically exposed to 250 instances of gambling marketing per episode, despite industry attempts at self-regulation.

As debate has shifted towards prohibition, football authorities and politicians are treading the line between commercial interests and public demand for greater restrictions. The Premier League in England is moving towards some kind of stricter regulation, perhaps short of an outright ban on all gambling-related sponsorship. For Scotland to follow suit would provoke controversy among clubs in a league which is hardly renowned for collective unity in any case. Without English football’s rich cushion of broadcast income, it is more difficult for Scots to attempt the moral high ground of renouncing sin.

Again, research into the influence of alcohol is telling. The Stirling team recently examined alcohol-related sponsorship across 10 European leagues – including two where there is a ban on such activity, France and Norway. The research covered 178 clubs that shared more than 7,800 commercial partners or sponsors. Of these, 2.6 per cent were engaged in alcohol production or distribution. The top three national leagues whose clubs had alcohol deals were Belgium (7.4 per cent), Scotland (6.4 per cent) and England (5.5 per cent), significantly above the average.

Purves points out that gambling promotion in the UK has enjoyed little or no regulation. In fact, the rules were liberalised by New Labour, and the Conservatives have done little to change that since 2010. The gambling lobby has a controversial grip at Westminster level, something that has helped it escape stricter regulation – so far.

“Gambling in Britain does have a lack of regulation. What barriers there are online are easy to bypass. There remains an element of the Wild West since the creation of so many mobile and internet options.  In terms of football just look at the level of saturation from advertising and sponsorship in its many forms.

“Many people might find a visit to a high street bookies as quite daunting: online betting does away with that. Yet whenever the question is asked, there is public support for bans on sponsorship.”

There is certainly public interest. When the UK Culture Secretary announced a review of the 2005 Act it received 16,000 submissions. This spring it unveiled a White Paper which indicated plans to tighten up regulation of gambling promotion, and a shift towards firmer government oversight of the sector. Some proposals will face opposition in parliament as the gambling lobby seeks to limit such moves. 

Culture secretary Lucy Frazer has estimated the number of people experiencing “problem gambling” – defined as gambling to a degree which compromises, disrupts, or damages family, personal or recreational pursuits – at 300,000, with a further 1.8 million identified as gambling at elevated levels of risk.

Proportionately, that would suggest nearly 30,000 in Scotland in the “problem” bracket and more than 160,000 at elevated risk – very significant numbers in a small country whose major sport is replete with gambling promotion and suffers significant poverty.

The White Paper is targeting online gambling in particular, with new proposals for financial checks on individuals who are losing more than £500, for example. Frazer reasons that, just as technology has made it super-easy for online gambling to occur, so it might be used to track heavy users or identify those who are underage. The culture secretary wants the Gambling Commission and Advertising Standards Authority to concentrate on “smarter and safer” approaches.

The Stirling University team’s research into “the frequency and nature of gambling marketing in televised broadcasts of professional sporting events” in the UK is referred to increasingly when the subject arises, as it does more frequently than ever.

Based on studies of football and other sports during 2018, it found an astounding level of references to gambling brands during the course of a typical day’s viewing that included the BBC, Sky Sports and BT Sports in the case of football. Researchers recorded the number of minutes during which brands might appear on participants’ clothing, pitch-side advertising and other sponsorship media. There were also the on-air references to brands by commentators and others – for example naming the “Ladbrokes man of the match” – and the contents of the TV advertising breaks.

The research also examined how often social media links were referenced, and whether the tidal wave of promotion included relevant references to harm reduction and age restrictions.

Covering numerous sports, the research studied five football matches, including one between Celtic and Rangers, which kicked off at noon. In total, researchers recorded 2,595 gambling marketing references across the five games, an average of 519 per match. Harm reduction and age restriction messages appeared in just three per cent of all messages and were confined largely to TV ads. In the case of the Rangers v Celtic clash, gambling marketing references appeared more frequently than anywhere else, at more than six times per minute, compared to West Ham v Manchester United (3.95 per minute) or a Tottenham v Barcelona UEFA Champions League tie (0.11 per minute), where it is more difficult for the betting giants to muscle in.

Stricter controls on gambling, including a ban on shirt sponsorship, are likely to prove controversial to Scottish football, especially to clubs who have earned significant sums since the rules were relaxed nearly two decades ago. Commercial managers will be under pressure to find alternatives. 

“Sponsors and marketing people always have to fill a void if something is banned or withdrawn,” Purves says. 

“One major argument against restriction is the impact of loss of income on the game and what its implication might be. Yet France has a strict ban on alcohol. The Scandinavians have strict regulation of alcohol and gambling in leagues such as Norway and Sweden, yet they all continue to thrive. They find other ways to earn money.”

This article first appeared in Issue 28 which was published in June 2023.

Illustration by Mark Waters

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