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.”