When I was a first year student at the University of Stirling, back in 2003, I was elected as a one of the student body representatives and I quickly went out of my way to accomplish stuff. By far the most important policy I proposed that year – or in any year I was there – was the one myself and a colleague of mine put forward to ban smoking in the union.
A full ban was the starting point of negotiations as far as we were concerned.
Nobody really envisaged the full ban as coming off at that stage. But there was room to work out some kind of compromise, something that would have banned it for lunch times and from 4 until 7 in the evening, when food was still being served in the place.
We saw the move towards a full ban as something that could happen incrementally. We were totally convinced that it was the correct thing to do.
Neither myself nor my colleague were rabble-rousing just for the sake of it. The Scottish Parliament was already deep into its consultation period on banning smoking from all public places. The idea had been pioneered abroad.
The State of California – one of the examples we had used in our submission to the rest of the student body – had actually done it four years before and we figured that it was only a matter of time. Scotland was way down the road towards it and our proposal was that Stirling get ahead of the game and start transitioning towards what was coming anyway.
Nobody around that table believed it would happen. They thought it was a vote loser and that the massive unpopularity of the idea would kill it stone dead. We argued that this wasn’t so, that the idea actually had broad public support and that only the pub and restaurant trades were truly arguing against it and that, ultimately, they would lose.
But of course, our proposal got absolutely buried.
Those student union reps who supported the idea were outvoted by those who saw it in narrow terms and the union full time staff, including the general manager, brought in their doom and gloom financial projections and that sunk us like a stone.
But we warned after the vote that it had been a mistake to dismiss the idea.
We both knew which way the wind was blowing. ASH Scotland were campaigning madly for a national ban, and Andy Kerr, the Health Minister, was listening with both ears open. As activists we had spoken to government ministers involved in the consultation and particularly those who worked with the NHS, who were telling them it would save lives and money.
So we knew that it was coming. It was just a matter of time.
Two years later, the Smoking, Health and Social Care (Scotland) Act 2005 was passed. A year after that, on 26 March 2006, the ban came into effect.
Towards the end of 2005, I sat, grim faced, through another student union council meeting as the consequences of being caught on the hop by something I had seen coming miles down the road were laid out. I somehow resisted the urge to say “I told you so,” but I remember that the general manager couldn’t even look me in the eye that night.
I am guessing that there are Celtic shareholders and some fan groups which feel exactly the same way today as the certainty of a ban on betting on football shirts edges ever close and people in the industry start talking about what a disaster it will be.
But it’s a disaster that’s been in the offing for years. It was not only foreseen, it’s been debated and discussed in earshot of all of football for a long time.
These people might have fooled themselves that because we have a Tory government that it would die on the vine but they haven’t been paying attention. This issue has real traction north and south of the border, and the only thing Johnson cares about is that it will be popular.
The Gambling Act was passed in 2005. So this isn’t a new idea, it came very close to getting pushed through back then. It was certainly part of the discussion. In December 2020, the Department of Culture, Media And Sport started its amendments review.
This is not something that has come out of a clear blue sky. The Tories put it in their 2019 manifesto. Some version of it was in the Labour manifestos of that year and in 2017 and 2015. The Scottish Parliament has debated the issue widely.
In September 2020, the first Big Step march went from Ibrox to Celtic Park as campaigners tried to push our Parliament into pressing Westminster for a national ban.
At the same time, they wrote to every club in the game here and asked them to sign up to a charter specifically committing to removing betting company ads completely.
Their latest march was in June, to Wembley.
The lack of clubs willing to offer their campaign their full support is shameful and utterly stupid because some form of ban is coming and they could have been in front of it. Celtic could have been in front of it too.
Our current deal with Dafabet expires in 2025. We are going to get caught in any ban, because it’s expected to come into effect for the 2023-24 season.
Where we might get some extra room is if there’s a commencement and duration clause which protects deals signed before a certain date. In those circumstances we’d be able to get through this contract.
Our deal with them was signed in August 2018.
The club across the city might not be so lucky; their deal with 32 Red was signed last year … when everyone in the industry knew full well that these matters were under discussion and that legislation was pending. A cross party group recommended, in the summer in which that deal was signed, that all sports betting advertising be banned from football.
So really, there’s no excuse at all for pretending ignorance of this.
One politician, feeling very much like I felt in 2005 as the Stirling University management team told us that prices would have to rise and that one of the union bars would probably have to close, is angry today with both our club and the one across the road.
His name is Ronnie Cowan, and he’s the SNP MP For Inverclyde.
“I spoke (to them) over a year ago and spoke to Neil Doncaster of the SPFL and the SFA. I said to them this was coming down the tracks and gave them a heads-up to prepare themselves for it. The league is now cinch and the Scottish League Cup is the Premier Sports Cup, so it’s good to see things moving in the right direction. It’s just a shame that the big two have failed to understand the potential damage they are causing to their own young fans.”
It’s more than that, though, because Celtic has been lobbied over this issue, by our own fans, for more than a couple of years now.
In the wider sphere, there has been a steady drumbeat on this for at least the last decade and if this wasn’t a reserved matter, if Holyrood could deal with it on their own, then there would be a ban in place already.
It is possible that current deals will be allowed to run; I actually think that some of what’s in the media today is hyperbolic nonsense about clubs going to the wall and other such stuff. These alarmist tales always come out whenever the law changes on something that impacts on the game.
The question is what happens next time, and are we ready?
Celtic should have been looking at commercial opportunities elsewhere well in advance of this.
We should be thinking worst case scenarios for legislation that does chop the current deals off at the knees and forces us to repay money and start looking for alternatives … we had better be far down the road of doing so already.
Nine teams in the Premiership in England have deals with betting firms; that means, though, that more than half don’t so they should be our model going forward, and that has to start now with the club making the not unreasonable assumption that this threat is real.
Because it is and a lot of people amongst our support have been saying it for a long, long time now.
That the club has failed to think strategically, and long term, about this is yet another reason to wonder at the sense of the people at the top of our house.
On this one, it doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind’s blowing.