This article first appeared in The Drum, Friday 13 April 2012
In the lead up to last year’s AFL grand final I was struck by a comment from a well known TV football commentator. “It wouldn’t be a Grand Final without some great odds,” he said, before crossing to a bookie spruiking the latest betting odds. Really, I thought? Is a grand final no longer a grand final without gambling odds?
Like many Australians I was treated to a tremendous football game that day. It was an epic battle featuring incredible skills, athleticism and courage. For a football lover it simply does not get much better than this year’s grand final. The enjoyment came not from knowing who was favourite to kick the first goal or win the Norm Smith medal but from the spectacle itself. It was the game that mattered.
Yet somehow over recent years betting markets and odds of all descriptions have become fundamental to the way football is understood and discussed. An upset victory is now described by how much money was lost on the result; a player’s form is understood by how he is tracking in the Brownlow medal odds. According to a recent article in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health footy fans are bombarded with up to five hours of sports betting ads when they watch a match. Football has become so entangled with gambling that it has become hard to separate them.
Gambling has even become a fundamental part of how our kids now understand the game. There have been reports of kids drawing their pictures of the footy and including “live odds” at the bottom of the picture. I have heard from parents whose kids comment on the odds during a game and are ready to put down their own pocket money on their favourite team. There could hardly be a clearer sign that things have gone too far.
As a former VFA footballer, my connection to the game runs deep. My love of football comes from an appreciation of the skills and talent required to play the game and from the poetry of its movement. It comes from a season playing with the Tennant Creek Eagles, an Aboriginal team in the NT, and knowing that I achieved as much for the health of that local community through football as I did through my work in the medical clinic. It comes from a lifelong sense of tribal belonging and the shared joy of a premiership, or in my case the recognition of each other’s long-suffering loyalty to the Tigers. Football is a unifying force. And it’s in the DNA of Victorians.
Unfortunately this message is being lost with the growing influence that the gambling industry is having on our great game. Over the last six months, the AFL and some clubs spoke out against the plans for meaningful poker machine reform, changes that the Productivity Commission and gambling experts agree will help reduce problem gambling.
For every problem gambler there are five people whose lives are impacted. It is a problem that devastates whole families and communities. A number of high profile former AFL footballers have also admitted to being problem gamblers and last season a number of players and coaches were embroiled in betting scandals.
Yet it seems that the business models of many clubs now rely on the grocery money of problem gamblers. Clubs themselves have become so addicted to gambling revenue that they simply cannot give it up. It doesn't stop with poker machines. Betting sponsorship is a good money earner and some clubs have gone so far as to sell their team colours to betting sites.
Fortunately, some clubs within the AFL are willing to take a principled stand on this issue. North Melbourne deserves credit for choosing to keep pokies out of its own club, as does the Geelong Football Club for its statement in support of pokies reform. The other AFL clubs would do well to take a leaf out of Geelong President Colin Carter’s book and put the welfare of their local communities ahead of their bottom lines. This display of leadership was almost enough to make a Tiger supporter turn. Almost.
Of course the AFL will argue that the challenge is too great. But football once relied heavily on revenue from tobacco advertising. It was able to kick the habit and survive. With a recent TV rights deal worth over $1billion this is not a matter of survival, just a matter of priorities.
There’s no denying that Aussies like a bet. We’re now the world biggest gamblers. A harmless flutter now and then is one thing, but gambling culture is beginning to pervade our daily lives. It’s time to step back and consider where we are heading.
The AFL has been a leader on many social issues in the past. It has been on the front foot when it comes to tackling racism, alcohol abuse and recognising the importance of women in sport. It's time to get serious about problem gambling.