The AFL announced overnight it wants to help its clubs wean themselves off poker machines. Speaking on the Nine Network’s The Footy Show, AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou said the AFL had made the move because of pressure from “AFL commissioners, possible changes to government legislation, anti-gambling lobbyists and exposure to massive debt by clubs through the gaming ventures”.

The AFL has now adopted a “strong social stance” on pokies and wants to act as a broker to help clubs divest themselves of machines, indicating it understands the Australian community sees poker machines as socially damaging and addictive, and that continuing to associate the code with this product is likely to damage the brand.

Carlton player Chris Judd demonstrated this in early May, when a court was told he had concealed a $500,000 stake in a pokies venture because he didn’t want to be publicly associated with gambling.

Unscrambling the pokies egg may prove difficult. The move comes just before a major shake-up in Victoria’s gambling regulations which will result in some clubs receiving a massive increase their share of revenue from poker machine operations, notably Carlton, which with the support of pokies czar and apparent Blues devotee Bruce Mathieson (of the ALH-Woolworths pokie empire) has increased its stake in pokies operations from a single venue with 60 machines to three operating 260.

The new arrangements would see Carlton’s share of pokie revenue grow from $2.5 million in 2009-10 to more than $13.5 million in 2012-13, according to research undertaken in 2011 by myself and colleagues at Monash University’s School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine.

Overall, the new Victorian licensing arrangements (under which the Tattersall’s and Tabcorp duopoly lose their operator status and individual venues own and operate their own machines) mean the Victorian AFL clubs’ revenue share will more than double, from about $30 million in 2009-10 to $63 million in 2012-13. The only Victorian AFL club not operating pokies is North Melbourne. Data for non-Victorian clubs operating pokies is not made available by gambling regulators in other states.

The AFL’s announcement comes as GetUp increases the pressure on pokies operators Coles and Woolworths via an advertisement highlighting the companies’ involvement in pokie gambling. Woolworths, for example, operates about 12,000 poker machines in Australia, about five times the number on offer at Australia’s largest gambling venue, Melbourne’s Crown Casino. GetUp this week scored bonus publicity for the ad after the commercial networks declined to run it.

GetUp’s ad is focused on “outing” pokie operators who are happy to take the revenue but have so far not been publicly associated with the product.

Regardless of the difficulty of disentangling AFL clubs from gambling dependency, the AFL’s announcement signals a major change in the trajectory of gambling involvement in Australian sports. Like many other sporting codes in Australia and overseas, the AFL has until now been increasing its engagement with gambling operators, notably sports betting agencies.

This has not been popular with many sports fans, and last year the MCC announced that it would no longer permit live odds broadcasting on the big screens at Melbourne’s MCG, after complaints from members and patrons, and state and federal ministers responsible for gambling have foreshadowed legislation to prohibit live odds being spruiked during broadcasts unless advertisers and networks refrain from the practice.

However, until now, no code has acknowledged the widespread community concern with poker machine gambling and indicated that the code would be better off not developing a reliance on a tainted revenue stream. The Productivity Commission found in its 2010 report that about 40% of pokie revenue is derived from people with a serious gambling problem, and another 20% comes from those on the path to such a problem.

The AFL’s position also puts it at odds with the NRL’s support for the pokie lobby’s expensive (and highly effective) campaign against poker machine precommitment, which lead to the Gillard government reneging on its agreement with independent MP Andrew Wilkie to introduce legislation for this by May this year. The government’s much watered-down legislation, providing for a system of “voluntary” precommitment, is slated to appear during the next sitting of parliament, but Wilkie’s position on this is not yet known.

Peter Fray

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