SCOTTISH football chiefs have hit back at suggestions that they are hypocrites for signing a two-year deal with betting firm Ladbrokes while players at all levels are banned from gambling on the game.
Announcing the sponsorship agreement, which is said to be worth in excess of £4 million and will see the rebranding of the Premiership, Championship, League 1 and League 2 from the start of next season, SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster described it as “the biggest-ever title sponsorship deal of this nature in Scotland in 125 years of the Scottish Football League”.
The league has been without a title sponsor since Clydesdale Bank’s deal expired in 2013 and, following reconstruction, the board has come under fire for the inability to find the right company willing to invest. But, despite Doncaster’s claims that the signing up of Ladbrokes is “hugely significant”, others dismissed the link-up as hugely inappropriate.
Critics claim the deal reeks of hypocrisy given the authorities’ recent clampdown on players who have been caught gambling – especially as the Scottish Cup is also sponsored by a well-known bookmaker, William Hill, whose former chief executive, Ralph Topping, serves as the SPFL chairman.
Rangers duo Ian Black and Steve Simonsen and former Ayr striker Michael Moffat have been banned for breaching the SFA’s zero tolerance rules on players betting on matches, while Partick Thistle’s Steven Lawless is also expected to be hit by a charge.
That has led former players to lash out at the SPFL on social media with former Ross County and Dundee striker Sean Higgins tweeting that “the SPFL just taking the p*** out of players now”, while ex-Rangers goalkeeper Andy Goram said: “Ironic they’re fining and banning every player that has a bet on football. Then get Ladbrokes to sponsor them. Brilliant!”
“Ladbrokes is a perfect partner for the SPFL and we have a shared vision of a positive future for professional league football in Scotland”Neil Doncaster
However, Doncaster is adamant that there is no conflict of interest. He said: “I think Ladbrokes absolutely have responsible gambling at the heart of their philosophy and it’s something we buy into. I think most sensible commentators would draw a distinction between the rules applied to those people in the game who can influence the outcome of a game and something that is a legal, lawful activity that is enjoyed by millions of people and enhances their enjoyment of the game.”
Raith Rovers chief executive Eric Drysdale, who is on the SPFL board which brokered the deal, agreed that the two issues are completely separate and believes that the deal should only be considered as a positive.
Drysdale said: “There are strict rules regarding players and officials gambling for a very good reason. It is with the intention of ensuring the scourge of match-fixing which has affected the Far East, in particular, does not reach this country. That firm stance is quite right and appropriate.
“That doesn’t mean any partnerships with betting firms should be out the question – it is an entirely different issue.
“Supporters and anyone interested in the game can enjoy betting on the sport and I’ve no issues with William Hill, Ladbrokes or any of the other companies mentioned supporting our game. If you look at England, you see SkyBet, William Hill and others. This is the sector with the most direct interest in sport and it is natural we enjoy a business relationship.”
Doncaster revealed that despite failing to land a major sponsor for the past two years, there had been hundreds of potential investors turned away by the board, when they fell short of the sums discussed or the gravitas they could bring to the table, insisting the authorities wanted to hang on for the right investment rather than just jump at the first suitor who came along.
The deal is said to be in excess of the combined sums for the Clydesdale Bank and Irn-Bru sponsorship for the various leagues and takes the total SPFL prize-money fund to £20m.
Next season’s Premiership champions will receive an additional £268,000, with the Championship winners receiving £45,000 more. Even the team finishing bottom of League 2 will earn an extra £3,600.
“As much of a financial difference, there is a pride issue here,” said Doncaster. “To have a league sponsored with a company like Ladbrokes – a hugely respected blue-chip UK company – who want to sit alongside you and develop the game in Scotland is hugely significant as well.
“It has not been the easiest time to go out and sell a title sponsorship. We are well aware of some of the financial issues that have affected some of our member clubs. But the reality is that we have had a number of big brands who wanted to partner with us. We have had various offers that we’ve rejected, but the clubs’ stance, which we think has been vindicated, was they wanted to wait for the right brand at the right money.”
Drysdale definitely believes the wait has been worthwhile. He added: “It has been a long time coming and I have been as critical as others regarding the time it has taken. However, I have seen the work that has gone into targeting sponsors and what a challenge it has been against the mighty financial power of the English Premier League and Championship.
“This has been a terrific effort by the team at Hampden to achieve this deal in the current economic climate. A package which improves on all previous SPL sponsors says it all. There are plenty of critics of the game here but it’s great that we have a good news story to enjoy and we can look forward to next season.”