Sports Betting Ads – Worth the Punt?

The cultural and social influence of sport all over the world cannot be understated. For many, sport is like a religion. It’s a mimicry of an ideal world where the ones who work the hardest rise to the top. It’s a display of raw strength, skill and athleticism that shows us what the human body is capable of. It’s unscripted theatre playing out in front of our very eyes, and nobody ever knows the ending. It’s an opportunity to double your money over the course of two or three hours. Wait, what?

The past decade has seen significant advancements in mobile technology. With this has been the rise in online or mobile betting agencies. Anyone can place money on anything, at any time. This ease-of-access has been responsible for monumental increases in sports betting activity, rising annually at a much higher rate than traditional forms of gambling: racing and poker machines. With over 25 online sports betting agencies in Australia now, the market has never been so competitive. Consequently, their advertising strategies have never been so adaptive, and betting promotions during live sports broadcasts are now the “most commonly observed form of [betting] promotion in Australia”.

Betting agencies like Sportsbet, William Hill and Ladbrokes have managed to insert themselves into the sports viewing experience in increasingly creative and deceptive ways. Advertising in the match preview sections of newspapers, bombarding television broadcasts with live odds and promotional offers, and even presenting entire online shows based around what the best bets are for the week (Crownbet sponsored ‘Pick a Winner’ on Betting agencies have managed to reverse the view of gambling as a hedonistic activity. Furthermore, they seem to have perfectly crafted the image of gambling as a fun, cool, social activity by attaching it to the “atmosphere of sentimental bonding between friends and sport”.

Agencies now also offer a number of seemingly “generous” promotions including free bets and the ability to place micro-bets (small amounts put on the line but at a much higher frequency), among other highly incentivised offers. Because of this, more people are signing up, and often to multiple websites to maximise their value. Once signed up, phones and inboxes are constantly inundated with more weekly offers. These high-pressure promotional techniques continue to increase exposure, and help normalise gambling on sport. Betting has become synonymous with sport, and doesn’t that just leave a sour taste in your mouth?

As of March 30 2018, the Turnbull government will implement regulations to attempt to minimise young people’s exposure to this advertising, including total bans during sports broadcasts before 8.30pm. Given primetime NRL and AFL games usually don’t begin until 7.30 or 8pm, and run from 2-3 hours, this will hardly stop the agencies from getting their message across. Product placement in and around the grounds, and studio crossovers or sponsored segments disguised as commentary and analysis (not unlike advertorials disguised as news, frequently seen on morning shows) will remain prevalent throughout these broadcasts. The embedded nature of sports betting is a problem for both the sporting tragics out there who don’t want their game tainted, as well as those people at risk of becoming problem gamblers.

Problem gambling is a massive issue in Australia, with problem gamblers, or those at risk of becoming problem gamblers, totalling an estimated 310,000-510,000 Australians as of 2015. It is a societal problem that doesn’t seem to get the same coverage as alcohol and smoking, despite the detrimental social and health costs involved. Serious gambling problems are known to lead to cases of domestic unrest, depression and suicide due to the financial stress it can cause households.

Given the addictive nature of gambling, the advertising and promotional methods need a serious policy shake-up. By leeching off of the sporting product, it has become normalised. Studies show that 75% of minors believe gambling is a customary part of sport. With upwards of 130 individual betting markets per game, fans are increasingly talking about how much money they could have won on the weekend, rather than that spectacular goal or remarkable try. There is absolutely no doubt this will affect future generations of sports lovers, and is the beginning of a potentially devastating cycle of problem gamblers if major changes aren’t made.

Sports betting agencies spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising each year to television networks and sports organisations. The AFL, NRL and Cricket Australia, among others, were all opposed to the advertising restrictions put forth last year due to the financial hit they would each take. But this simply is not a good enough excuse. These hugely influential sporting organisations have a duty of care to uphold to their players (professional sportspeople are at a significantly higher risk of developing gambling problems), their fans, and the broader community.

The money and power that these betting agencies hold is a worrying fact for the Australian sporting community and changes are needed. The government and major sporting organisations have a responsibility to ensure that this problem doesn’t get more out of hand than it already is. While I don’t think there should be a complete advertising ban on gambling (after all, we live in a liberal democratic society), certain methods that are particularly subtle or deceptive should be reviewed. Sponsorship deals and sponsored segments should be strictly limited if not banned entirely, excessive bonus offers should also be limited to prevent the use of a strong lure to consumers (much in the same way heavily discounted alcohol is restricted), and state and federal governments should look at more public campaigning to educate consumers and highlight how serious a problem it can be, à la anti-smoking and alcohol campaigns. Sports betting agencies should be kept as separate entities from sports organisations and betting odds shouldn’t be treated as another statistic from the game. Given sport’s prominent role in our society, its ‘gamblification’ just has too many potential social and cultural repercussions.

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