Ladbrokes decision to end SPFL sponsorship may lead to attitude change

C igarette sponsorship was stubbed out, time was called on using kids as advertising boards for alcohol brands and now we have a gambling firm which has apparently found a conscience and wagered that it is irresponsible for them to indulge in such prominent product placement in a sport watched by youngsters.

One small step: Ladbrokes is ending sponsorship of Scotlands leagues  but the sport is still too reliant on betting firms support. Photograph: Bill Murray/SNS Group

Scottish league sponsors Ladbrokes have announced they will not be renewing their SPFL deal, which runs out at the end of this season, following growing concern about the influence the betting industry is having on sports fans, and particularly kids.

With the bookies’ branding on all four of Scotland’s league competitions, it will leave the SPFL with a £2 million a year funding gap, unless they can reel in another big-name sponsor.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

There are those who argue that the price of normalising gambling is even higher, though, and believe this offers the game’s hierarchy a chance to make a moral stand.

Given where the big bucks are coming from in sport at the moment, with the Scottish Cup, League Cup and a quarter of the nation’s top-tier teams backed by betting companies, Ladbrokes’ decision to vacate the field is not a major game-changer. But it could be the spark that ignites a switch in attitude and helps football minimise the role it plays in the misery of gambling addictions, whether those battling those demons are players, staff or fans.

“It normalised it,” Liz Ritchie, of the Gambling with Lives campaign said of the betting industry’s highly visible presence in sport. Her son Jack took his own life after he became bogged down by his gambling addiction which began as a 17 -year-old. “It’s made normal by being a part of the thing they love, which is football.”

As it is, gambling advertisements are prohibited in some countries, and clubs like Celtic, Rangers and Greek club AEK, who are all sponsored by betting companies, would have to go logo-free or wear a different logo on their kits in some overseas matches.

There are also strict rules governing youth teams consisting entirely of players under the age of 18, who may not wear shirts advertising age-restricted products such as alcohol or gambling, while replica kits in junior sizes are also prevented from carrying such sponsorship. But investigations have proved that some clubs are still playing fast and loose, unwittingly shirking their responsibilities or going all out to please their financial backers, with some including company logos within online areas dedicated to their youth sections and others adding in links taking fans straight to gambling sites.

Most clubs, though, will insist that they do not target children or encourage underage gambling.

But those same kids attend games where their heroes are wearing those shirts. They have pictures of role models branded by the likes of Dafabet or 32Red on their walls, they see trophies handed out dressed in the sponsor’s ribbons and televised games are punctuated by adverts glamorising a wager but then reminding punters to gamble responsibly. For those on the road to addiction, it is a trite warning.

Gambling on and in sport is big business – how else could these companies afford to throw tens of millions into sponsorship deals? The money is tempting but is it time football blew the whistle?

Lives are being ruined and, just as cigarettes and alcohol sponsorship became unwelcome and unfashionable, maybe it is time to shy away from casinos and bookies and snuff out the odds of adults frittering away life savings, destroying relationships and families and finding themselves in hopeless situations.

But, for that to happen, it will take more than hiding adverts from kids. After all, while kids may be intrigued by having a flutter it is not as easy to indulge underage. For them, there are other demons as they can freely gorge on Big Macs, chocolate bars and fizzy drinks.

So, it’s not just betting, we have to show greater responsibility all round. In a country battling obesity on a daily basis, it is saddening to see kids running round football camps in bibs emblazoned with the SFA badge and Ronald McDonald’s golden arches, involved in youth projects sponsored by Mars or glued to a Champions League competition sponsored by Pepsi. Like all these things, do we really need more rules or simply a better moral compass? One that dictates that the message means more than simply the millions going into the pot.

Previously backed by Marathon Bet, Hibernian took the decision to replace them as the main kit sponsor this term, choosing to send their players out with Hibernian Community Foundation across their shirts instead.

For them it was about finding “the right brand”.

There were, they said, other options “but as we investigated the Foundation option, the club felt it was the right time to bring club and community visibly together.

“And supporters should know that the decision will have no impact on the football budget – and indeed our players are delighted to support a good cause.”

It follows neighbours Hearts’ decision to swap a payday lender with Save the Children as their shirt sponsor in 2015, which was renewed last season and will persist until 2021 at least.

“It is gratifying that the vision that we set out in 2015… has delivered so impressively,” said owner Ann Budge, pictured. “The support shown by our fans for this initiative has been magnificent and is yet another reminder of what makes Heart of Midlothian such a special club.

“I am immensely proud that we are not only promoting Save the Children’s work by sporting their name on our shirts, but that our players and fans have had a part to play in enhancing the services that the charity delivers.”

That is a partnership that financially benefits both parties equally, thanks to the anonymous benefactors – but the same will never be said of gambling firms. When it comes to them the deck is always loaded and the house always wins. And, as the adverts say, when the fun stops, stop.