(Image: AAP/Dan Himbrechts)

There’s a new stream of sin-generated revenue splashing through town: sports betting. It’s a big business that’s already eating professional sport. Looks like it could eat media, too.

In Australia, News Corp is leading the pack with speculation that heir-apparent Lachlan Murdoch is eager to follow fellow billionaire’s-son James Packer (and former US president Donald Trump) into gambling through an ownership and licensing stake in the $2 billion revenues of Tabcorp’s sports betting arm.

Add ownership to the ad dollars the betting industry already provides, mix in the traditional media reluctance to bite the hand that feeds it, and its odds-on that sports reporting will increasingly follow the (gambling) money. Odds-on, too, that old media will lend its lobbying clout to push for deregulation and tax cuts for the industry.

Let’s be honest: media have never been shy of scooping the froth of sin-generated cash flows, whether they’re the tabloid-mediated soft porn of page three girls and discreetly positioned “adult” ads in the classifieds or the broadcast blaring of the cigarette naming rights sponsorships that once branded the country’s football and cricket.

Right now it’s the insert forms and betting guides paid for by the racing industry that keep print papers going.

Sports betting is treading that well-worn track from sin to respectability, smoothed through broadcast or streamed spectator sport coupled with internet-enabled gambling.

It’s being hurried along by governments eager for their cut of betting revenues. Delaware-based News Corp has had its interest piqued as the large US market opens up after the 2018 US Supreme Court decision to strike down a long-standing ban on sports betting as unconstitutional.

In Australia, sports betting has expanded from horses and dogs to, well, just about everything. It’s a coupon-clipping turnover business, scooping about 10% (or about $4 billion) from the betting pool. It’s growth strategy? Grow the pool to grow the clip.

Sport fans need to be turned into sport betters, through broadcast ads, reporting of odds as “news”, and sponsorship of teams and sporting organisations that sell a more social gambling experience than the solitude of the pokies.

News Corp is betting it can leverage the otherwise declining value of its sports broadcast rights through Foxtel and Kayo by powering the engagement of the spectator. Don’t just watch. You, too, can have skin in the game. Win-win: more betters, more engaged viewers.

It worked for the company with Sky Betting & Gaming in the UK, leveraged off the rights of the Murdoch family-controlled Sky to broadcast English football.The family companies sold out of British betting after they lost control of Sky in 2017. They’re attempting to replicate the result in the US with Fox Bet. Last year they began looking for partners with the necessary technical expertise to set odds and handle turnover in Australia.

In February, Australia’s largest handler, the $11 billion Tabcorp, said it had received “unsolicited” offers for its sports betting arm, firmed up to two by the Nine mastheads last month: $3.5 billion in hard cash by UK group Entain and $4 billion in not-so-hard cash-and-scrip by rumoured News Corp partner BetMakers.

News Corp isn’t new to the game. Cash rewards through an inserted bingo game helped The Daily Mirror to victory in its long Sydney afternoons war with Fairfax’s The Sun. In 1979, Murdoch partnered with Kerry Packer and British businessman Robert Sangster for the (otherwise untendered) licence to run football pools in NSW.

More traditionally, Australia’s media barons have been on the other side, as owners and punters, bringing its own pressure on media content: back in the early days of television, James Packer’s grandfather, Sir Frank, demanded his Nine station interrupt Saturday night programming to rerun the race his horse Foresight won that day. A brave night producer spluttered it had already been on the nightly news.

“Run it again. I was on the toilet,” ordered the audience of one.

Sir Frank’s (literal) sparring partner Ezra Norton used his papers to urge the then three-year-old Tulloch be withdrawn from the 1957 Melbourne Cup. Too young for the weight apparently. “Don’t Kill Our Champ” shouted the posters of his The Daily Mirror. Tulloch’s scratching cleared the way for Norton’s horse, Straight Draw, to win the cup in its place.

Reporting shaped journalism from metaphors (think: the political horse race) to myths. It drew some of the most graceful and writerly of journalists, like Banjo Paterson (who took his reporting gifts to write The Man from Snowy River) or Bert “Cardigan” Wolfe in Melbourne’s pre-war The Herald who crafted the Phar Lap legend as we know it, or Bert Lillye who wrote Australian racing into “the sport of kings” in The Sydney Morning Herald in the 1960s and ’70s.

The difference this time? Media owners have swapped sides from the painter of the moment for risk-taking punters to the more predictable coupon-clipper of the bookmaker.