Bread and circuses

Photo by JunkByJo (How quickly faces change in the NRL: Broncos vs Raiders 2008 (l-r) Carmichael Hunt (AFL), Michael Ennis (Sharks), Darren Lockyer (commentator), Denan Kemp (Australian Sevens), Dane Gagai (Newcastle), Nick Kenny (retired)

Not for nothing did the Roman Empire invent the phrase ‘bread and circuses.’ This unbeatable public policy formula was coined by a Roman scribe in an attempt to arrest the decline of heroism among Romans. It means a government soothing its anxious tax payers by providing food and grand spectacles, in this context, the footie grand final.

In Roman times the serfs gathered in vast public arenas, encouraged to give the thumbs down to beaten gladiators. Today we have the less life-threatening ‘Mexican Wave’ and the lone dickhead yelling something incomprehensible during a minute’s silence to honour a fallen comrade.

At a base level, keeping the people dull-witted by swamping them with heroic spectacles (the Olympics, the Ashes, the Melbourne Cup, the World Cup, the State of Origin, the Tour De France, Wimbledon, the Australian Open, the FA Cup, the Grand Prix…) can and does work.

Some might say it stops us analysing what is wrong with the world and how best to fix it. It might even be where a lot of the money that could be used to fix what’s wrong with the world is spent.

There’s nothing like Grand Final weekend to focus the mind on just how much money is spent organising, promoting and playing professional sports. We’ll talk about the Australian Football League (AFL) final in a bit, but for purely parochial purposes, let’s look at the National Rugby League (NRL) grand final.

There’s a reason 4.4 million people tuned in to Channel Nine last year for the 80-minute plus overtime contest between the Cowboys and the Broncos (the Cowboys won 17-16 in the ‘golden point’ overtime period, remember?). It comes down to the cost of actually attending the game. Tickets at Sydney’s Olympic Park this year range from $45 to $375. If you drive there, a standard parking fee of $25 applies. So even if Mum Dad and the two kids drive to the game and snag the cheapest tickets, it’s still a $300 day out by the time you factor in petrol, pies and burgers, chips, beer and whatever memorabilia is sold to you on the way in (and out).

Bu that is small beer compared to the Victorian Government’s decision to declare a new public holiday for the AFL Grand Final. An economic impact study by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) estimated the costs of the two new public holidays (the other adds Easter Sunday to Good Friday as a gazetted public holiday), at between $717 million and $898 million. But as The Age reported, the Grand Final Eve holiday accounts for up to $852 million of the costs. PwC estimates the new public holidays will result in increased public holiday wage payments of between $252 million and $286 million.

Notwithstanding, this weekend offers a veritable feast of footie, especially if you follow both codes (AFL and NRL), and you can watch the games live on TV for nothing. Last year’s AFL final between the West Coast Eagles and Hawthorn drew 3.9 million viewers for the Saturday afternoon game. At $180 to $399 for a reserved seat at the Melbourne Cricket Ground you can understand why.

Well, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Footie finals means enduring saturation level advertising. At $130k minimum for a 30-second TV ad, advertisers nevertheless throw buckets of cash at the time slot to ensure its viewers know that their brand of car, beer, burger, mobile phone, betting app or hipster beard styling product is the best.

The stars of the show get well looked after. The 34 Melbourne Storm and Cronulla Sharks players (including four interchange players from each team), collectively earned about $7 million this year. That includes $4.27 million to most valued players in both teams; the highest paid (Storm captain Cameron Smith, $1.1 million), has a 72.3% success rate for kicking goals – more on this later.

I cite these more than adequate wages ($205,882 p.a. on average), not to irritate musician friends who customarily play four-hour gigs for about $100 per band member. No, footie players at this elite level deserve to be well paid for keeping themselves in top notch physical and psychological health and for learning how to stick to the script in after-match interviews:

Just happy to get the two points, mate’ or ‘we stuck to the game plan and saw out the 80 minutes’ or ‘Thanks to (sponsor) and (sponsor) and can I just say g’day to my Auntie in Cairns.’

So did you know that 53 NRL players earn more than $400,000 a year and a handful of those earn more than $1 million? Give them a break. It’s a short-lived career – 15 years at best. For those who invest and take the time to plan an after-footie career, it’s a good financial start.

Former Bronco turned sports commentator Gordon Tallis once famously said (amid a heated discussion about whether someone was offside or was that a forward pass) – “Guys, it’s just a game of footie.”

As is our custom, we will have friends over for pies and vegies and a good old fashioned yell at the television set. People in our village are sharply divided into (a) footie fans (the kind that own season tickets and belong to tipping clubs); (b) secret footie fans (those who would like to stay friends with (c) people who think there is something acutely wrong with our otherwise satisfactory level of mindfulness.

Mind you, I have seen hippies come out of the chemist shop clutching Lotto tickets, so nobody’s perfect.

She Who Yells at the Television says footie is great escapism and better, there’s a beginning, middle and end.

One’s level of interest in the Grand Final (if one has an interest at all), is predicated on whether the team you follow made it into the match.

This year our interest is academic – the highly accomplished wrestling team (the Melbourne Storm) versus the western Sydney outsiders, the Cronulla Sharks. As the late Jack Gibson once said: “Waiting for Cronulla to win a premiership is like leaving the porch lamp on for Harold Holt.” (Thanks to Roger the dentist for reminding me of this gem SWYATT)

Last year 82,000 people came to Olympic Park to watch the grand final and this year will be no different. A sold-out stadium is good business for those all-essential broadcast media deals. The NRL annual report detailed the five-year deal signed on 27 November 2015.

The Australian Rugby League Commission, Nine Network, News Corp Australia, Fox Sports and Telstra signed agreements to provide free to air television, pay television and mobile coverage of Rugby League for five years from 2018. The deal is worth $1.8 billion to the NRL, which makes gate takings of $57 million in 2015 look relatively modest.

I was going to write about (live) betting on footie but She Who Edits says no, it is stupid, immoral and leaves players open to temptation.

But, did you know you can get odds of 151-1 on no try being scored in Sunday’s match? Imagine!

The Rugby League Project records show that in 1986, the Parramatta Eels beat the Canterbury Bulldogs 4-2 in the only try-less Grand Final to date. Michael Cronin (Eels) kicked two penalties from four attempts, Terry Lamb (Dogs) kicked one from two.

Take the two, Cameron, take the two!




Watching footy

(Tigers game at Leichhardt Oval – photo by Scott Brown

Did you know Australians will bet on which of two flies crawling up a wall will get swatted first? Yes, and they bet on cockroach and toad races too, and horses, dogs, the toss of a coin and football games. Fond as I am of a punt at major racing carnivals, I have never had a bet on the outcome of a footy match, even though we follow rugby league fairly closely. It just never occurred to me to try to win money predicting which team will win or who will score first.

Apparently you can still get odds of $2.50 about the North Queensland Cowboys beating the Brisbane Broncos (favourites) in the NRL grand final on Sunday.

One of life’s simple pleasures − watching footy on a Sunday afternoon− has been overrun by a bewildering range of options, few of which will ever recapture the bonhomie of afternoons spent sitting on the hill drinking tinnies and booing the referee. I tried to recapture that lost innocence in a song, Watching Footy, where I ponder, “Does anyone remember when we had no unemployment and inflation was what happened to a hot-air balloon?”. In the New Zealand of my youth we’d set our alarm clocks and get up at 3am to listen on an unreliable shortwave radio to the All Blacks playing Wales at Cardiff Arms Park. People would be late for work or school and be forgiven, as can only happen in a sports-mad nation.

Uber-marketing in sports

Those of us who love watching rugby league today must endure delayed telecasts stacked with advertising, cross-marketing and peripatetic commentary, or go to a live game. Games are usually held at night, under lights. Going to a game typically costs $150 for two people, by the time you take in the cost of tickets, transport, a couple of beers and a pie or two. Little wonder southern NRL teams are playing to half empty stadiums as fans save their pennies for the State of Origin or the rare “double-header”.
It’s a different story when you get to the pointy end of the season and teams are playing off for the grand final; 50,388 footie fans (about 2.5% of Brisbane’s population), packed in to Suncorp Stadium on September 12 for the semi-final between the Cowboys and the Broncos.
The vast majority of footie fans watch the game at home on their big screen TVs. You get the best view of the game without the noise and distractions like people pushing along the aisle, spilling beer on your shoes.

Watch out, here come the advertisers

The advent of “broadcast rights” has dragged footie fans into the vortex of cross promotion, where Channel Nine’s Friday night football commentary frequently promotes the network’s next series.
The commentators try hard to dress this up as conversational asides: “I can’t wait for The Block to start, can you?” At the ground, punters are regaled with sponsor’s advertising and all of the razzmatazz that has basically been ripped off from American gridiron – mascots, cheer leaders, pennants, signet rings, half-time interviews with panting, sweating players, referee-cam, spider-cam and so on.
When you dig down underneath all of the bullshit, the game is better than ever – fast and furious, the players bigger, faster and fitter than ever before. While the television commentary can be infuriating (‘Do you think players should have their socks up or down, Rabbits?’), the camera work just keeps getting better, as does the technology that allows veteran experts like Darren Lockyer or Andrew Johns to walk us through set moves that led to tries.

Paying the bills

Not that we should go back to the days when amateur footie players broke arms or legs and spent months off work with no compensation. My late brother-in-law, a more than handy rugby union player in his day, asked my sister for fifty cents before he set off for the afternoon game one day. Apparently this was to pay for insurance, to cover the reasonable likelihood that he might literally become a one-armed cabinetmaker, in which case insurance would prevent the family from starving as he was recuperating from injury. Most of the bills today are paid by television rights, the betting percentages trickling back to sporting organisations, and by sponsors. Sponsorship in rugby league is a relatively new phenomenon – in 1976 Easts was the first rugby league team to have a sponsor’s name on their jerseys (City Ford). The first commercial sponsorship of competitions in Australia was not introduced until the 1980s, with the Winfield Cup. In the UK, the brewer Joshua Tetley and the cigarette company Players were the first sponsors in 1971-1972. The game has been televised since 1961, so you’d have to say they were all a bit slow off the mark seeing the potential audience for fast food, beer, fast cars and other products aimed at a primarily young male audience.

Sports betting takes hold
Footytab, largely an industry attempt to shut down illegal betting, which had been an open secret since the game began in 1908, started in 1983. The official totalisator version of services offered through the TAB offers three different bets: “Pick The Winners,” “Pick The Margins,” and “Pick The Score”.
Online betting has taken hold in Australia, with smaller bookmakers swallowed up by the big UK operators, Ladbrokes and William Hill. A visit to the latter’s website is a revelation – you can bet on 25 different categories of sport, state and federal elections and some financial markets.
In 2013, bookmakers were being threatened with federal intervention as a result of a public outcry over the barrage of betting updates on TV during live rugby league matches. As Charles Livingstone of Monash University wrote in The Conversation last month, bookmakers agreed to self regulate, promising not to promote odds during games. But since then, the number of betting ads has increased massively.
While poker-machine gambling is still the biggest game in town, Livingstone says sports betting is growing in popularity. Poker machines soak up $11 billion of the $20 billion Australians lose every year on lawful gambling activities. He estimates that sports punters will lose around $750 million in 2015-16, based on a seven-year pattern of trends. And while AFL (grand final on Saturday), is still referred to by league fans as ‘aerial pingpong’  it consumes the biggest share of sports betting.

Reverend Tim Costello summarised the more serious problem with sports betting in a 2011 article in The Monthly.
“There’s no question that if the bets get big enough, people will start throwing games,” Costello said.
“While gambling is a part of life, there’s a vice dimension that drops, compromises and changes what should be family and children’s passions.’’

Someone’s spending my share

The Productivity Commission’s 2010 report showed that while 70% of Australians indulge in some form of punting, for most this is an occasional or weekly Lotto or scratch casket ticket, representing a small proportion of betting turnover.
When gambling is extended into clubs and casinos, with poker machines, gaming tables and electronic gaming, participation is higher and so is turnover.
The Productivity Commission found that 600,000 Australians play the pokies at least once a week and 95,000 are problem gamblers. (They contribute 40% of the cash put through poker machines. About 115,000 Australians are classified as ‘problem gamblers’ with a further 280,000 people at ‘moderate risk’).
Naturally enough, those engaged in spruiking the business of sports betting offer a time-honoured disclaimer.
As one footy commentator used to say (before someone corrected him):
“Most importantly, bet responsible.”