This article originally appeared in The Conversation.

Netball Australia CEO Kelly Ryan said last week she would consider accepting gambling sponsorship to help with Netball Australia’s debts.

Gambling sponsorships were “lucrative” for sports, she reasoned, adding netball had to “put itself a little bit more outside its comfort zone” in terms of financial partnerships.

While betting firms sponsor large female sporting codes in the United States, this is the first time a high profile women’s sport in Australia has publicly discussed accepting gambling sponsorship.

A social media backlash followed. Parents and fans expressed fears about the impact of exposure to commercial marketing for gambling via a code largely marketed to young girls.

While such partnerships may be financially lucrative for sporting codes, there are also hidden costs.

Gambling is an addictive product with a range of significant health and social costs for individuals, their families and communities. This includes children – with extensive research showing how gambling advertising in sport normalises gambling for young people.

Caught in the middle

As gambling brands attempt to market products to a relatively limited market, children are caught in the middle.

Thanks to a range of sophisticated and innovative marketing strategies – including the use of celebrity endorsements – children can name multiple gambling brands, and perceive gambling as a normal activity for sports fans. Some believe the deals provided by gambling companies, including free bets and money back offers, mean gambling has little risk attached to it.

Concern is mounting about the impact of gambling marketing in sport on young people. A joint commission report by The Lancet, WHO and UNICEF recently highlighted gambling as a commercial harm that threatens child health and well-being, calling it an “unaddressed public health challenge for children”.

No one likes gambling ads

Surveys show gambling advertising in sport is unpopular and worrying for sporting fans.

Even sporting leaders recognise its deeply problematic impact on young people. This week, a survey by The Age newspaper of AFL club bosses reported 11 out of 16 chief executives or chairs felt gambling advertising in sport was excessive. One said the AFL had “prostituted themselves” to the gambling companies.

Now it’s girls’ and women’s turn

So why are female sporting codes now following the well-trodden and heavily criticised path of male sporting codes – turning to an industry that poses an unnecessary risk to the health and well-being of fans?

To date, evidence about gambling marketing in sport has largely centred on the impact on boys and young men. But this does not mean girls and young women are immune to its impacts.

Gambling companies are increasingly targeting women to expand their customer base and profits. They have begun sponsoring television programs such as Married at First Sight, that are popular with a female audience.

They even offer information about how to bet on your pregnancy – including predictions of birth date, weight and “gender reveals”.

Following the tobacco and alcohol playbook

The feminisation of gambling marketing and products should not be a surprise for policymakers, given the historical playbook of the tobacco and alcohol industries.

These industries spent millions of dollars aligning their products with the values and social practices of women – including sponsoring women’s sporting events – to appeal to new markets, and to legitimise the use of these products for women.

Our research shows gambling – including on sport – is becoming increasingly normalised and socially accepted for young women.

Women we interviewed felt gambling was commonly portrayed as a form of entertainment. Women also said they had signed up to betting accounts after seeing marketing for gambling companies, and that online companies had largely eliminated the stigma associated with going to a male-dominated betting venue.

Time for governments to step up

Public health action from governments on this issue has been almost non-existent.

Public education is still largely based on the idea of personal responsibility, which can reinforce the normalisation of gambling by portraying gambling as a common leisure activity that can be kept in control with informed choices. Campaigns generally focus on young men and betting, and often portray women in stereotypical roles such as disgruntled girlfriends.

An audit of public education programs about gambling harms found they couldn’t match the scale or intensity of sports betting companies’ marketing.

Sporting codes have repeatedly demonstrated they are unable to make decisions about gambling partnerships in the best interests of young people. Regulations should be implemented to prevent young people from being exposed to gambling marketing.

Our recent research with young people shows they agree with this view. They support comprehensive curbs on gambling marketing, including an untangling of the relationship between gambling and sport and protection from harm.

In the words of one 14-year-old female sports fan:

I’m a bit disappointed and sad that gambling is such a big part of sport now. I would say that, like, just do it because, watch it and do it because you love (sport) and don’t try to bring gambling into it. It doesn’t have to be about that, it doesn’t have to be about money.