Stakes high for Scottish football if gambling debate means all bets are off

When Ernie Walker, the then omnipotent secretary of the Scottish FA, announced the first major sponsorship of the Scottish Cup back in 1982, he offered an observation which is beginning to have fresh and striking resonance for those responsible for attracting outside investment into the game in this country today.

All four league trophies are currently sponsored by bookmakers Ladbrokes. Picture: Jeff Holmes
All four league trophies are currently sponsored by bookmakers Ladbrokes. Picture: Jeff Holmes

“There are types of sponsorship which do not really go hand in hand with football but health and sport go together well,” said Walker as he unveiled what was, the best part of four decades ago, a highly lucrative £200,000 deal with the Scottish Health Education Group.

It is unclear – and perhaps more than a little dubious – just how beneficial that tie-up was to a nation often described at the time as the “sick man of Europe” but the SHEG regarded it as successful enough to keep it going for six seasons.

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When that source of income from the government health quango dried up, however, the SFA had no hesitation in embracing what proved to be the longest-running and most successful sponsorship agreement Scottish football has ever known.

The irony of Tennent Caledonian Breweries replacing a health advisory organisation was of little 
consequence amid the commercial realities of a deal which ran for a remarkable 18 years and saw Scotland’s best-known lager brand powerfully and effectively linked with the oldest football trophy of them all.

Football’s relationship with alcohol has always been a complex one, frowned upon by the moral guardians of our society.

Now, however, they have a new focus for their sanctimony and it spells significant danger for both the Scottish FA and the Scottish Professional Football League.

The widespread involvement of bookmakers in Scottish football has come under intense scrutiny.

It has even prompted a call last week from GVC Holdings, the owner of Ladbrokes and Coral, for an end to all broadcast advertising for sports betting in the UK and a ban on football shirt sponsorship featuring betting companies.

That was the most radical step yet in attempts by the major bookmaking firms to find a level of self-regulation in addressing the thorny issue of problem gambling.

Their hope is to stave off the 
threat of government stepping in with even more drastic action.

It is now 14 years since the EU banned tobacco sponsorship in sport and it would be naive of anyone involved in football to discount the possibility of some politicians seeking similar action against bookmakers.

Right now, Scottish football has all of its eggs in one basket when it comes to major sponsors.

William Hill have backed the Scottish Cup since 2011, their involvement worth around £1 million a year. Ladbrokes have been the SPFL title sponsor since 2015, their current deal bringing in £2.5m a season. Betfred have sponsored the League Cup since 2016 to the tune of around £500,000 a year. All three contracts are due to expire in the summer of 2020, although it is understood all three companies are keen on extensions despite the ongoing uncertainty over how their involvement in football advertising might be regulated.

If shirt sponsorship is banned, then four Scottish Premiership clubs – Celtic (Dafabet), Rangers (32Red), Hibernian (Marathonbet) and Motherwell (BetPark) – would need to seek alternatives.

For those of us who believe in taking responsibility for our own actions, a bookie sponsoring Scottish football is no more likely to make us place too many bets than the involvement of Tennent’s, Bells or Skol in previous years would have encouraged excessive drinking. Did anyone ever take out a loan or overdraft they couldn’t afford because of the Bank of Scotland or Clydesdale Bank when they were league title sponsors?

Hopefully, common sense will prevail. Because if the bookies are banned, there are no obvious candidates lining up to fill what would be a financial black hole for 
Scottish football.