Has non-league sold its soul?

IN RECENT years, non-league football has promoted itself as “real” and the game for local communities. Some clubs have embraced causes, have lent their hand to political movements and have championed inclusiveness. In particular, the drive to build the next generation of fans – a vitally important element given the audience of this level of the game – has rightly placed emphasis on youth development, young fan groups and charitable causes linked to children. Many claim to be “community clubs”, which gives them access to certain financial benefits and enhances their social profile.

But will non-league truly benefit from the current wave of sponsorship by online gambling company BetVictor? The Gibraltar-based bookmaker has long been involved in sport sponsorship, taking in darts, snooker, poker, horseracing and, of all things, ping-pong. It’s a company with a turnover of £ 1 billion, so it is sizeable.

But gambling is a major social problem in the UK, an addiction that has got out of hand with even children dipping their toes into the betting industry. Obviously the demographic of football lends itself to gambling and would-be sponsors are attracted by its mass appeal and media presence. Yet it has a poor reputation as it can create financial problems for people who are lured in by the promise of instant gratification. Given society has demanded that other addictive elements and behaviours – smoking, for one – are now considered to be anti-social, how can non-league football happily align itself with an activity that creates so much pain?

BetVictor is sponsoring the Southern League, Northern Premier League and Isthmian League in 2019-20, the result of a collective approach from the three leagues. Some people will claim that in this age of football’s over-exposure to the sector – look at the number of Premier League clubs backed by betting firms – it is only natural that non-league would like a slice of the pie. It is not as simple as that – non-league is played in front of small crowds, every aspect of the matchday experience is that much easier to consume.

Hence, everyone will know who the sponsor is by the end of 2019-20, which is good news for that sponsor, but not so good if you are trying to sell your local club in the community. Companies like to be associated with causes and partners that are seen as “worthy” and genuine contributors to society. A football club’s reputation is not just created by its own standards, it is also built on what that club represents and who it associates with. In the big time, football is already so immersed in convenient partnerships that it is arguably too late to change it, but non-league football, with its focus on community and neighbourhood, may not find that taking money from bookmakers (in other words, money gained from the plight of others) is sending the right set of messages.

Not everyone accepts this is the only way, despite the amount of liquidity in the gambling industry and the temptation to go where the money is. Italy has banned gambling sponsors and a little known club in Yorkshire, Headingley AFC, became the first to be sponsored by an anti-gambling organisation, “Gambling with Lives”.

This is not about accepting that non-league clubs should take money from whoever they like in order to fill their coffers. Values should play a big part in their business model and given what clubs are trying to achieve in order to differentiate themselves from, for example, Premier League football, they need to stay true to their supposed “community” role. In this case, gambling is as socially toxic as some of the habits that are no longer allowed to advertise in markets directly exposed to children. Don’t be seduced by taking the quick buck, that has to be the message.

Photo: PA

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