This winter, the federal government rushed to regulate sports betting, with a live odds ban followed up by the AFL and NRL promising to impose their own vetoes on “exotic” bets and on-field cheats.

Stephen Conroy’s edict — which will stop Tony Greig droning on about Betfair during the cricket — received strong backing from state governments. But a crunch of the latest gambling numbers reveals outlays on footy and the cricket are the lowest of low-hanging fruit — by backing the crackdown provincial leaders have precious little to lose.

Take Victorian gaming minister Michael O’Brien’s presser bragging that he had “consistently expressed concern about the blurring of the line between advertising and editorial when it comes to sports betting advertising during the broadcast of live sporting events. ”

Particularly “insidious”, O’Brien reckoned, was the promotion of sporting odds targeted at children.

Buried further down the press release was the kicker. The Baillieu government was opposed to the federal government’s mandatory pre-commitment technology for poker machines, preferring a voluntary system that put the onus on individuals, not governments.

Pokies regulation is one area in which the states are at one, with South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia joining a chorus of opposition to Andrew Wilkie’s and Julia Gillard’s proposed laws. Victoria is the most virulent, threatening to take the federal government to the High Court if it proceeds with the mandatory measures.

A quick look at fresh Australian Gambling Statistics data released quietly earlier this month reveals why. Sports betting almost completely fails to register on Australia’s gambling radar — a reduction in revenue from the likes of Betfair, Sportsbet and Sportingbet would have next to no impact on state government balance sheets.

As a proportion of 2008-09’s total government gambling tax take of $5.2 billion, sports betting makes up a pitiful 0.34% or just $17 million across the country. Even the declining pastime of racing rakes in 22-times more cash than heavily-promoted wagers on the cricket and the footy.

Sports betting’s minnow status is reflected the actual amount punters spend. Real per-capita expenditure on sport was just $13.32 or 1.2% in 2008-09, compared to a whopping $975.23 or 85.1% for “gaming”, which includes poker machines and casino expenditure.

And according to the new AGS data, considered the bible among serious researchers, the dominance of the one-armed bandits is even greater when you include machines in casinos, echoing last year’s Productivity Commission report that showed electronic gaming’s total share had risen from 40 per cent to 75 per cent over the past 20 years.

It’s true that sports betting has undergone rapid expansion — 16% in real terms in 2006-07, 18% in 2007-08 and 5.6% in 2008-09. Next year’s 2009-10 data is expected to show another spike. In Tasmania sports betting grew 183% between 2007-8 and 2008-09, thanks mostly to Betfair’s 2008 High Court victory against the Western Australian government and in the other hotspot, the Northern Territory, $390 or 16% of an annual per capita spend of about $3,000 was spent.

The NT is the currently the only state government that issues licences for online gaming with the vast majority of betting websites filtered through the Top End.

Online betting is still dangerous, in the words of Tim Costello, because you can “lose your home without leaving it”. But in real terms the vast majority of Australia’s $19 billion gambling market continues to operate through pokies owned by conglomerates like Woolworths at clubs in poorer suburbs.

Pokies expert Charles Livingstone from Monash University’s medicine faculty told Crikey that “state governments are Australia’s biggest pokie addicts. Their total revenue — $5 billion — shows how deeply conflicted they are on gambling regulation.”

“‘It’s easy for Australia’s state governments to crack down on sports betting; their tax take is minuscule from that source compared to the pokies. And much of it goes to the Northern Territory, or Tasmania, anyway. Of course, there are five billion reasons why regulating pokie gambling to make it less harmful is an entirely different matter.”

Livingstone said pokies were still the biggest game in town as far as gambling in Australia is concerned, especially the $5 billion lost each year through the souls of the pathologically addicted.

“Despite recent hoopla, sports betting is still a small player. Even casinos are a long way behind the pokies; and NSW continues to be the country’s most pokie riddled state.”

Livingstone’s view is born out by the hard data, as the graph below shows.

Real poker machine expenditure, excluding casinos, was $10.5 billion in 2008-09, a small decline of $34 million on the previous year thanks to the Global Financial Crisis. NSW sits atop of the shame table, accounting for $4.8 billion or 46% of the damage with its 97,067 machines, followed by Victoria (25% with 29,272), Queensland (18% with 45,571) and South Australia (7% with 13,720).

The total number of machines paints a sorry picture.

South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon, a strong supporter of Wilkie’s legislation, was scathing when contacted by Crikey, and called for the states to get out of the way.

“State governments are the biggest pokies junkies in the country. The rivers of gold they rake in from gambling taxes come from rivers of tears.

“This is why federal action is essential when it comes to poker machines. The states just can’t be trusted to do the right thing.”

It’s no wonder premiers would prefer to gag the likes of Richie Benaud than do anything that might disrupt the stream of misery that ring-fences their credit ratings. Unlike the battlers that vote for them, they’ve been hitting the jackpot for years.

Peter Fray

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