If you’re sick of Tom Waterhouse and his ilk, you’re not alone. Sports betting, or more accurately the advertising of it, has created a furore. There are now at least five proposals afoot to limit some or all aspects of sports betting advertising — not including Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s promise to stop live odds if he becomes prime minister.
Free TV Australia has prepared a code of conduct around sports betting advertising, which would limit the spruiking of live odds to designated breaks in play and stop announcers and commentators from spruiking odds. This is now reportedly with the Australian Communications and Media Authority. This is Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s preferred way of dealing with the issue, although it would only stop the spruiking of live odds. The ads would continue unabated.
The Wagering Council, which represents the bookies, has gone one step further, drafting its own code to stop bookies interrupting games. This comes after a prominent online bookie, Sportingbet’s Michael Sullivan, attacked Waterhouse for, effectively, poisoning the well and fuelling public angst. Although it’s not clear what the Wagering Council’s proposal actually is, it would also not stop the ads.
Earlier this week the South Australian government asserted it would regulate bookies to stop live odds being broadcast and otherwise promoted at sporting arenas. How this could be comprehensively implemented is a little unclear given state governments have no control over the airwaves, and it would be flying in the face of a 2008 High Court decision that explicitly stopped state governments from using advertising restrictions against sports betting agencies licensed in other jurisdictions.
Two private member’s bills have also been in the game: the first, drafted by Victorian Greens Senator Richard Di Natale, would ban all broadcast advertising of gambling until 9pm; the second, drafted by ALP member Stephen Jones, would have the same effect, but only up until 8.30pm. At present, sports broadcasts are exempt from bans on the advertising of gambling (and alcohol) during times when children can be expected to be watching TV. Jones’ bill would remove this exclusion.
Di Natale introduced a motion to the Senate last week outlining his proposition — it got short shrift from Labor and Liberal senators alike; Jones’ bill is scheduled to be discussed at next Tuesday’s caucus meeting. Although public outrage is high, whether this translates into real action is another question.
On gambling, the ALP, of course, has form. Not only does the party run a very profitable poker machine operation in the ACT (through the Canberra Labor Clubs) but when the Gillard government looked like it might actually honour the agreement with independent MP Andrew Wilkie to introduce pre-commitment for poker machines, the NSW backbench rebelled, albeit heavily influenced by ClubsNSW’s NRA-style marginal seats campaign.
“… the real story on gambling reform will unfold when a future government has the wherewithal to take on the big boys from the poker machine lobby.”
The furore around sports betting is understandable and justified. Advertising of this product is in-your-face and is central to creating a “gamblified” popular culture where the bookies can anticipate a whole new generation of young people — especially young men — who think gambling and sport are natural partners. The likely result of this is a tsunami of gambling problems, facilitated by technological convergence and hyper-active marketing. Exposure is a major risk factor, and exposure to this culture is now intense. Limiting advertising is a sound precautionary move.
Whether the ALP can accept this logic, and act effectively on this issue, is another question.
However, sports betting is, as Four Corners host Kerry O’Brien remarked on Monday’s program, a pimple on the backside of Australia’s gambling industry. It’s worth perhaps $500 million a year in net revenue, compared with the poker machine industry’s $10 billion-plus. Poker machines are ubiquitous and highly accessible, and that’s why they’re the overwhelming cause of gambling problems in Australia.
Removing live odds from sports broadcasts is a step forward for those who are concerned about gambling’s impact on both sport and the next generation. Removing gambling ads altogether (at least for some of the evening) would be a major move forward, at least for this particular manifestation of the gambling industry’s endless quest for your money.
As it happens, it’s Responsible Gambling Awareness Week, when the gambling industry joins forces with state government and some community groups to advocate for people to take responsibility for their gambling and to seek help if they do have a problem. “Partners” for this campaign include the Australian Hotels Association, the Australian Leisure and Hospitality Group (Woolworths’ poker machine subsidiary), casino owner Crown, Tabcorp and Tattersall’s — a who’s who of Australia’s biggest gambling operators.
Thus, state governments and the gambling lobby collude to produce a doctrine (“responsible gambling”) that removes dangerous products like poker machines from the spotlight. Rather, in their argument, it’s an individual’s duty to “gamble responsibly”. Problem gamblers are the issue, not an ineffectively regulated problem industry.
With sports betting we’ve been provoked into action by relentless and unavoidably infuriating self-promotion, particularly by one particular bookie. The poker machine lobby is far more expert at image building, and its lobbying expertise is second to none. It needs to be, because the pokies are still the biggest game in town, by a country mile. They still cause three-quarters of Australia’s gambling problems, take most of the money, and exercise extraordinary influence on state and federal governments.
Maybe the bookies’ live odds promotions, and even their TV ads, will be a sacrificial offering. It may even be that once there has been real action on reigning in one aspect of this burgeoning business, there will be action on other fronts. However, the real story on gambling reform will unfold when a future government has the wherewithal to take on the big boys from the poker machine lobby.