In Scotland, football and alcohol have long enjoyed, or perhaps endured, a complex relationship. The national sport and the country’s other national pastime have forever been intertwined, with countless thousands of fans enjoying a bevvy as part of their matchday ritual for generations.

There have been times when that has been problematic. Most infamously, the riot at Hampden that marred the 1980 Scottish Cup Final between Celtic and Rangers, which sparked a dramatic tightening of legislation around the consumption of alcohol at football that continues to regulate and restrict drinking around football matches to this day.

Now, with the matchday experience having changed beyond all recognition, and with attitudes to alcohol across Scottish society shifting, is it time to re-examine football’s relationship with drink?

Many experts believe so, and in a series of articles this week, Herald Sport will explore topics such as the cases for and against a relaxation of the current legislation around alcohol sales in football grounds, and whether football fans are treated as ‘second-class citizens’ compared to attendees of other sports such as rugby.

As Elinor Jayne, director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) calls upon the Scottish Government to enact a blanket ban on alcohol advertising and sponsorship in football, we will examine whether a reliance on revenue from the drinks industry is compatible with the responsibility clubs have to their fanbases and the communities they are situated within, or whether such sweeping measures would be overly punitive to both clubs and an industry that has supported them for decades.

READ MORE: Scottish Government should ban 'health harming' alcohol advertising in football

Today, the case for a ban on alcohol sponsorship and advertising

“You can approach the issue from two perspectives,” said Dr Richard Purves, senior research fellow with the Institute for Social Marketing and Health at Stirling University.

“There is the public health side of it, where Scotland has a particular relationship with alcohol, the government have targets to reduce overall consumption and reduce alcohol related harm.

“Then, there is the leisure side of it, where alcohol is a legal product, and it is associated with things like going to the football for many.

“With regards to alcohol sponsorship, we’ve done a lot of work on that with SHAAP and with Alcohol Focus Scotland, particularly around football, to try and place Scotland into context in terms of how much we have. Do we have a lot of it?

“One of the things we look at is the marketing of certain commodities. So, we’ve looked at tobacco, we’ve looked at alcohol, we’ve looked at gambling, unhealthy foods, all sorts of things.

“We know that exposure to harmful things does result in increased consumption. If children are seeing marketing for alcohol, it inevitably leads to them consuming more in later life or consuming it earlier. So, it does affect consumption, there is a link there.

“That is the angle I would always take with it, that exposure to alcohol marketing – in this case, sponsorship – impacts upon consumption and in that sense, if it increases consumption then it will increase alcohol-related harm.

“Football is obviously very important among young people, you have children going along, and now you don’t get alcohol sponsorship on children’s shirts.

"There’s a reason for that, because people think that is not something that is acceptable to have kids running around with McEwan’s Lager or whatever on shirts as they did when I was growing up. There has been an attitude shift there in the culture.”

That influence football, and footballers, yield over young people is why the moral argument for keeping alcohol sponsorship within the sport is a hard one for Dr Purves to make.

“There is almost that dichotomy there of football being a force for good, but then promoting a product that does harm society and health,” he said.

“I think fans are aware of that now, and attitudes towards alcohol have changed, particularly with regards to young people being exposed to it as well and people in recovery from alcohol issues.

“Another point to is that footballers are seen as healthy and something aspirational for a lot of young people to be, and alcohol consumption among footballers is not now acceptable.

“These kids want to be Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, and if they look up to those guys, then it’s very different to even 30 years ago.

READ MORE: Labour MSP Monica Lennon on the father she lost to alcohol

“There is also the leisure side of it though where fans are going along and wanting a day out, and might want to consume alcohol if they are going along to a game, so I can understand where the clubs are coming from wanting to market something that appeals to that that demographic. So, there are those two things at play there.”

But how would clubs plug the revenue gap?

A study conducted by the Institute for Social Marketing and Health commissioned by SHAAP in late 2022 found that Scottish football clubs, at 6.4 percent, had the second highest proportion of alcohol industry sponsors in Europe, behind only Belgium.

Alcohol brands accounted for 6.4% of sponsorship in Scotland overall compared to 2.6% across all the countries studied, with six of the 12 Scottish Premiership football teams having at least one alcohol industry main sponsor or partner.

Dr Purves acknowledges that it is difficult for those in the public health sphere to quantify just how much money would be lost to the game should alcohol sponsorship be banned, but he points to how similar fears for many sports around the withdrawal of financial support from the tobacco industry ultimately proved unfounded, as well as the fact that several European countries already enforce a ban on alcohol advertising, to illustrate his view that alcohol sponsorship is far from indispensable.

He also points to alternative sponsors emerging at clubs who have refused alcohol sponsorship such as Hearts, or the SWPL as a collective, to show that there are alternative sources of income out there.

He said: “If you go back to situations in the past where different sports like Formula One or snooker have removed things like tobacco advertising, or you look at other countries in the world like France and others around Europe who do have restrictions around alcohol sponsorship, in these countries the leagues are still going.

“You don’t know until you take it away what the alternatives are. There are clubs and indeed entire industries who have decided they don’t want anything to do with a health-harming commodity, and what many have found is that if you do remove alcohol sponsorship then there is potential for other sponsors to come in and fill that gap.

“I know that is the situation at Hearts, for example, and I know the women’s game in Scotland has a particular position on this as well in not accepting sponsorship from health-harming commodities.

“That is definitely a situation that could be possible.”

Overcoming the pro-alcohol lobby

According to Jayne, the director of SHAAP, it is no surprise to see the same sort of tactics being used by those who lobby for the interests of alcohol producers as those used by the tobacco industry prior to the ban on the advertising of their products at sporting events two decades ago.

“The way the alcohol industry plays this, it is very similar to how the tobacco industry did it,” she said.

“They are so good at embedding themselves in every aspect of our lives, in different industries including sports and advertising, so that when change does come along, they seem so naturally part of it that it takes a lot of leadership and courage from the decision makers to take that on because there are lots of vested interests involved.

“But I think it is the role of government ultimately to say well, what is our role? Is it to let this happen, or is it to promote an environment that is healthy, and to protect the health of the next generation?

“I certainly hope that future generations will look back and think what an earth was going on? Why was alcohol plastered all over my favourite team’s shirt and all over the stadium on matchday?

if you look back to when tobacco sponsorship and marketing was banned, there were lots of fears then that was going to decimate sporting organisations, but none of that has come to pass. And you would never go back now and say let’s introduce tobacco advertising and that it would be good for sport.

“It just seems to be the very opposite of what sporting organisations are trying to achieve, and hopefully, that is exactly how we will feel about alcohol in 20 years’ time.

“And actually, we will wonder why big clubs did use their shirts to promote this harmful product to their fans, and look back in wonderment.”

Tomorrow: The case for keeping alcohol sponsorship, and the prospect of alcohol sales at Scottish football stadiums