When our love of sport becomes a way to increase the profits of the gambling industry it might be time to cut our losses, writes David Goodwin.
The sports world is full of wild claims and boasts that often don’t stand up to scrutiny. After all, baseball may be a big deal in the United States, but calling their annual championship the World Series is stretching things considering how many countries are involved.
But every year we are reminded that the Melbourne Cup is the “race that stops the nation”, and not only is it a fair call, it might be an understatement. It’s been said, justifiably, that it’s actually two nations that come to a halt—our neighbours in New Zealand will be watching, too (and reminding us where Phar Lap was actually born!).
The Cup has managed to expand its appeal beyond those who are passionate, or even know much at all, about horse racing. In the weeks leading up to the race, people who normally wouldn’t know one end of a horse from the other suddenly become experts on the field, and everyone knows someone who has an inside tip that’s a sure thing.
Even for people who really don’t care about the actual race itself, there is plenty to catch the eye. The fashion reports have become an event in themselves, and there will be hours spent discussing what’s hot and what’s not—and everyone is fascinated by fascinators!
The Cup has level of cultural significance that’s hard to beat—the rivalry between Aussie Rules and the two Rugby codes, giving us multiple Grand Finals to choose from, means that it’s probably only the first day of the Boxing Day Test that could claim to capture more of the public’s undivided attention.
Naturally, big audiences mean big money. The racing industry is happy to share how much it puts into the economy, with the four days of the 2016 Melbourne Cup Carnival bringing a gross benefit of more than $420 million. That doesn’t take into account the millions spent on fashion, accommodation and dining as a result.
But it is much harder to get solid figures on how much money it means to the gambling industry. It’s not just the bets made at the track itself; people will be at the TAB, or taking part in office sweeps, or—increasingly—betting online. It’s part of a multi-million-dollar industry that saw Victorians lose $260 million on sports betting in 2014–15, and $815 million across the country—an increase of between 20–30% on the year before.
While most Australians might see little harm in a bit of a flutter at the races, it’s the way in which gambling’s profile in society has changed over the past few years that has many welfare groups concerned. Where once pokie machines could only be found in limited venues, or you had to actually be at the races or the TAB to place a bet on a race, gambling is now a constant presence and accessible from anywhere—something we are frequently reminded of.
In the lead-up to the Melbourne Cup, you can’t turn on the TV without seeing an ad for one of the seemingly countless online betting apps and services that allow you to place bets online. You can make a wager while avoiding your in-laws or holding a beer or building a house—all you need is a smartphone and you’re off.
Because it’s so easy to set up, and often comes with incentives and bonuses for signing up, it’s taking gambling into a whole new demographic. It’s no longer something you have to seek out, it comes to you, wherever you are and whoever you are with. It’s moved from something that might have once been seen as a solitary pursuit to a social activity.
While pokies account for a considerably bigger share of the gambling market, and have a far larger impact on society, sports betting presents a unique threat. Australians love their sport, and it’s a passion that transcends barriers like age and background. While you hopefully wouldn’t take your kids to the pokies with you, sport is something families often watch together.
The problem is that regardless of how old you are, you can’t watch it without being bombarded with advertising that promotes gambling. In a study funded by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, researchers at Deakin University found 75% of 8- to 16-year-olds think gambling is a normal or common part of sport. The same percentage could also name at least one gambling brand—with 25% able to name four or more.
More and more, it is becoming impossible to separate sport from gambling. Whether it’s the ads or the sponsorships, or the athletes and celebrities telling us how we can be just like them, our passion for sport is a delivery mechanism for the message that gambling is just a normal part of life. And when it is portrayed that way it makes us less likely to think about potential harm or consequences.
Many Australians would not see a bet once a year at the races, or the occasional night at the pokies, as having a problem. However, we should all be concerned at the growing impact gambling is having on our society, especially as it becomes more widespread and acceptable. As much as people might point to how much pokies or the races put into the economy, it’s also costing us dearly.
Of course, it’s not just a matter of simple maths. Our governments receive around $5.9 billion in revenue a year from gambling, but the social cost is estimated at approximately $4.7 billion—$1.2 billion might seem a tidy profit, until you think about what social cost actually means, and what the numbers represent.
It’s not only the almost 500,000 Australians who are at risk of becoming, or are, problem gamblers. It’s also the people around them, as studies show the actions of one problem gambler can harm the lives of between five and 10 others. Then there is the fact that children whose parents are problem gamblers are up to 10 times more likely to become problem gamblers themselves.
That revenue suddenly seems a lot less impressive when we realise how much is being spent repairing the damage gambling causes. It goes towards things like counselling and financial assistance, or on the health issues linked with problem gambling—as do the donations from the public that support charitable organisations such as The Salvation Army who are helping those in need. And, given that Australians lost $23 billion last year—making us the number one country in the world when it comes to losing bets—even after the government gets its share someone is making a great deal of money, and at our expense.
The people who lose the most are usually the ones who can least afford it, and it is the gambling industry that benefits most—like a reverse Robin Hood that takes from the poor and gives to the rich. Marketing campaigns are always going to paint a positive picture, like fun nights out with friends or easy money, and lobby groups will point to economic benefits. But that ignores the reality that gambling is hurting lots of people, generally the most vulnerable amongst us.
It’s an issue that isn’t just going to go away, and is only going to get worse. Something needs to change, but it’s hard to know where to start. It’s unlikely for all sorts of reasons that gambling is suddenly going to be banned, ranging from economic factors to the simple fact that Aussies have always loved a bet.
However, we can begin to take away things that magnify gambling’s impact on society and disguise the potential for harm. Removing its association with sport by putting strict controls on the way it is advertised—just like we did with cigarettes when we realised that we needed to re-evaluate their place in society—would make a massive difference.
It’s hard to imagine an Australia without our passion for iconic sporting events like the Melbourne Cup—and, personally, I don’t even want to. But, maybe we can hope for an Australia where loving sport doesn’t mean that we have to accept gambling as part of the package. Once the industry can no longer ride on our passion for sport, we can start to have a real conversation.