Recently introduced legislation in Australia has limited the scope of gambling advertising during live play. This has been referred to colloquially as a ban on ‘siren-to-siren’ advertising.
The intention of this article isn’t to offer a dry forensic analysis of the new laws.
Rather, it attempts to explain some of the drivers behind the changes, and the counter-arguments offered against it by some pro-gambling advocates.
It also suggests the path that media outlets, betting organisations and sports governing bodies alike (who currently benefit from gambling advertising) are likely to find themselves headed down in the future.
Why the ban?
Alcohol and tobacco advertising has long been the subject of stringent rules and regulations around its public positioning. The days of the Rothmans-branded F1 team and cricket’s Benson and Hedges Cup seem as anachronistic as the jubilant changing room photos of the winning team enjoying a post-match smoke.
The negative social effects of both alcohol and tobacco (whether used socially or to excess) are well documented, can’t be refuted and need not be tested here. Gambling has the same negative effect on society. It is obvious that exposure to gambling opportunities is a key risk factor in the development of gambling problems.
Libertarians may instinctively rile at the Big Brother-type approach to limiting human choice that this legislation represents to some. This argument perhaps has some merit when considered in relation to adults who are able to make educated considered decisions on their own behalf.
However, children exposed to sports betting advertising during live play when watching their favourite AFL team play during a weekend primetime TV slot, for example, are much less able to apply a filter to the information they are fed, as their reasoning abilities are clearly not yet fully developed.
On the contrary, they are very easily influenced and allowing in-game advertising of gambling products can very easily normalise the practice, and in some cases, lead to a problematic gambling habit. Coupled with the particularly persuasive effect of using a past star with whom the audience may have an emotional connection, it is easy to see why the new laws were introduced.
A step too far?
The commentary has not been all one-way though. Gambling companies have strongly argued that their industry is valid, employs thousands of people and should not be subject to any rules and regulations beyond the extensive legislative framework that already applies to them.
Media outlets such as television stations, radio channels, and print publications rely very heavily, almost exclusively in some cases, on advertising income for their on-going sustainability.
Sport is an extremely powerful social magnet and motivator, which is why advertisers seek to hitch their wagon to these very public high-profile products and pay high premiums for the privilege of this association.
Pro-gambling supporters argue that even if the negative social consequences that problem betting can cause are accepted, they do not see why their product is viewed as less damaging than other products, which are allowed.
For example, excessive screen time is widely regarded as a challenge to the current generation of children, yet Play Station and Xbox advertisements are not limited. Similarly, advertisements for sugary drinks and fast food are also able to enjoy prominence during live play.
Are these less damaging to children than exposure to gambling advertising?
It’s an interesting argument which healthcare and behavioural professionals will no doubt have differing views towards.
The future approach
Move in the higher echelons of any sporting organisation these days and you will soon hear the buzzword of ‘integrity’ mentioned. Whilst commonly used in relation to drug testing and doping, it is also heavily linked to sport betting.
Outside the obvious realm of horse and greyhound racing, allegations of match or spot fixing have been raised, and in some cases proven, in sports as diverse as tennis, cricket, soccer and basketball.
Logically then, one way to maintain the ‘integrity’ of a sport (in addition to the obvious minimum steps of establishing codes of practice and protocols inside organisations) is to reduce the threat of coercion by reducing the incentive to cheat or provide information.
Betting is intrinsically linked to financial gain – this is the sole reason the industry exists. If the ability to make money through betting is reduced because the market allowed to bet on certain events is minimised, then the temptation to cheat decreases.
There appears to have been a cultural shift in the Australian sports psyche towards the standards of behaviour we expect from our sporting organisations and our athletes.
If we needed a reminder of this, it was provided recently by the ‘tapegate’ scandal endured by Cricket Australia, domestic abuse allegations that have dogged the NRL, and cases of illicit dug use amongst some AFL players.
The natural response to this is that the level of prohibition that exists around alcohol and tobacco, which was also the result of changed societal expectations, will over time be equally applied to the sports betting industry.
North Melbourne has already abandoned pokie machines, and Melbourne Demons have indicated that they will not renew their pokie licenses when they expire in 2022. This would suggest they can envisage a future whereby their very existence is not contingent upon gambling revenue.
If they can do it, why can’t the other sporting organisations that are currently reliant upon this type of revenue do the same, subject to being given the necessary time to adjust their fiscal strategies?
Similarly, sporting bodies and clubs survived a reduction in advertising income due to bans on alcohol and tobacco advertising in days gone by– why should the increased prohibition on sports gambling revenue be any more damaging?
In this age of greater global marketing reach due to our increased social media avenues and online presence, surely it is easier than ever to look for alternative sources of income?
Perhaps more fundamentally, isn’t it just a simple case that while acknowledging that certain pockets of society may be adversely affected by tighter gambling laws, those interests are overborne by the desire to see the greater good achieved for wider society as a whole?
Gambling companies are sophisticated and mature enough to adapt to new situations without collapsing, given their increased access global markets and the prevalence of online gambling. Remember too, that the recent changes are far from a blanket ban on sports betting on Australian sports. They simply limit ‘live’ advertising.
The gambling industry will endure, and no doubt thrive, as they continue to connect with legitimate audiences in innovative ways – to misquote and paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.