‘And remember: gamble responsibly!’ – yeah right

By Adam Gibson

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My father loved a punt. Every afternoon after primary school in the late 1970s, my brother and I would come home and he’d be perched at a bench in the kitchen, yellow foldout newspaper form guide in front of him, a transistor radio blasting beside him and the landline (remember them?) phone receiver in hand.

As I say in the song ‘On The Punt’ (by my band The Aerial Maps), he’d be regularly repeating his PhoneTAB number down the line to some mysterious operator – “This is 20791900, thank you” – as he placed bets on races being run across Australia. The names echoed in our childhood minds like mythical spaces where Things Happened and whiskery men and floral-dress women did things.

Eagle Farm, Flemington, Dapto, Kalgoorlie, Doomben, Wentworth Park, Rosehill, Broken Hill, Caufield, Morphetville…

This was Australia reduced to a fine essence, the high-pitched voices and razor-sharp accents of the racecallers forming a static-buzzed soundtrack across lino-floor kitchens and the hot leather seats of old primary coloured cars, when TV and movies from the rest of the world took weeks to filter through and small things from Norman Gunston to Auntie Jack seemed to matter.

And there seemed a related smallness to the betting world too – it didn’t seem like big business was involved and it didn’t feel like some grand fleecing of the masses was being played out. Dodgy small-time figures haunted dusty racetracks, a mate of someone’s dad was (allegedly) an SP bookie on the sly and my Dad betted in a few units each way – bets of a dollar or two which came out of the account which he topped up every few weeks and which mum tolerated in complete silence. The rose-coloured lens of nostalgia no doubt casts this world in an innocent light, but it did all seem to have a harmless air about it.

Sure, there’s no doubt that over the years my father lost more than he won and he was bailed out by mates on a couple of occasions when the demon of gambling took hold, but he mostly kept that demon in check and mostly knew his limits.

I shudder to think how Dad would control such a demon in Australia today, however. Turn on the TV, watch any sports show or live telecast, open the newspaper, look online at the most seemingly non-gambling connected site, and you are bombarded with gambling advertisements and inducements.

Betfair, Ladbrokes, SportsBET, TAB Sports, Centrebet, William Hill, UniBet, Bet365, AusBet, Luxbet, several more… It would be an overreach to say the list is “endless” but it’s not too much of an overreach.

It is a near-constant attack; an almost continual bombardment of odds and offers and hearty (mostly chubby, 30-something) men, mostly with beards in order fit the advertisers’ current designated zeitgeist view of “hip”, heartily living it up as they busily make betting the apparent centre of their universe.

The cool guy, the “winner”, is the one who’s just “cashed out on his multi”, who’s just used his perhaps ironically-named “smartphone” to “download the app” and place a bet, who’s sat on the couch and watched the cards fall in his favour (“high five!”). He will perhaps be shown dancing across a crowded bar, perhaps being cheered by his carefully casting-agent-selected “mates”, perhaps happily walking out of a pub with the swagger of a true hero.

And I thought somewhere in the Advertising Standards Board regulations there was a stipulation that ads couldn’t be shown to be “celebrating” gambling? Ah bugger it, who cares, hey? Let em go…

It’s got the stage now that, where once gambling occurred on the vague fringe of society most of the time (aside from the Melbourne Cup), it is now in the prime time centre of our lives. But I won’t say it’s hit “saturation” stage – I am certain they have more in store for us in future. But I feel this normalisation of betting is now reaching a devastating point. Kids are aware of such things as “odds” and they just think it’s part of the games being played and conversation about any sport – from surfing to golf to AFL and everything else – can very quickly move on to betting talk.

Two years ago Rugby League fans blew a collective kerpuffer valve when the weedy Tom Waterhouse appeared regularly before, during and after games on Channel 9 to offer his views on the game and talk about associated odds. He seemed to become a quasi commentator and his integration into the broadcast was just too jarring for the majority. “Who this hell is this twerp!?” essentially was the response.

In quick time, the chorus of disdain against him grew to a crescendo and he soon got the message and disappeared from screen (only, of course, to not long after sell his bookmaking business to UK giant William Hill and become their Australian CEO… Oh how the greased palms deal, hey?).

But during this season just past, mediocre ex first grade footballer Joel Caine, in between juggling his own actual footy commentating duties (no conflict of interest?), appeared with impervious regularity to do pretty much exactly what Waterhouse did – and barely anyone raised a peep. On he’d come, sprouting opinions about the current or upcoming game, attempting to lure us in with bonus offers and cash-back temptations. His footy credentials, such as they were, somehow meant he was okay to do this. There wasn’t a howl of protest. The greater public, it seemed, was now seemingly okay to just sit back and let it come at us. Maybe we’d just been worn down and given in?

And I guess the dam has broken on a wider level too. What was once a marginal activity – betting on general sports which people, ya know, once used to actually play, and maybe, erm, actually watch for the sake of the contest – has become a version of the norm.

You will be watching a gripping contest with friends at the local RSL, coinciding with the Friday night badge draw, and it soon becomes apparent that this mate has a “pick the score” or that mate has a “first try scorer”. Someone will say, “Canberra are paying such and such to beat the Bulldogs”, or “I wanna get on the Roosters to beat the Rabbitohs by 20”. It’s completely normal, nobody bats an eyelid.

Having seen the ill effects of gambling first-hand, it occurs to me that this “normalisation” can only serve to give those for whom gambling is a problem a sense of permission to keep on punting, ensconcing them a warm cocoon of camaraderie and connection. Everyone’s doing it, I’m sweet, it’s no dramas. Further, it almost certainly serves to open up the idea to other previous non-punters, bringing them into the game, so to speak, because, well, everyone does it, hey, it’s just normal.

You can always tell the industries which are awash with cash by the extent of their advertising. Witness insurance companies of all stripes – their advertising budgets are huge simply because they are milking millions off everyone’s self-fulfilling fear that they must be covered. Think of car advertising – you cannot go an ad break on Australian commercial TV without seeing a car ad. Ditto the big supermarket chains. And ditto betting agencies during certain programs. Their relentless advertising spend lays it bare – they are raking it in and they’re getting bigger and bigger all the time.

But the impact both on the sports themselves and the punter is apparently barely considered. The proven incidence of match-fixing is one obvious outcome of such betting, while the bank accounts of punters across the land are being siphoned like petrol out of an HR Holden back in the olden days.

But hang on a sec. Where’s the regulation for this? This seemingly unchecked explosion of betting agencies and associated advertising must be regulated in some ways, mustn’t it?

Well it appears to be … but one look at the Australian Wagering Council’s website probably gives a good indication of the rigour of this regulation. “The AWC is committed to ensuring that all forms of advertising by its members is undertaken in a socially responsible manner and accords with the promotion of responsible gambling and the need to protect the integrity of sport,” the website says.

So there it is … great. They will do a lot of the regulation themselves, thanks. This is no doubt part of the reason why, at the end of each ad or live gambling segment, the puppet presenter says, almost with a knowing smirk on his or her face, “But remember, gamble responsibly!”

I can hear the management of these betting companies laughing their heads off that that seems the extent of their social responsibility. “Hahaaaa, GAMBLE RESPONSIBLY!!! Yeah, good one.”

The thin end of the wedge is being slowly rammed in ever harder. The distinct line between betting, sport and/or entertainment is being ever eroded and I have no doubt that within the next few years we shall be seeing ever increasing integration of betting with general aspects of life. Money doesn’t feel real when it’s just represented by numbers on an iPhone app like points in a game.

But the point is, it is real money going out and it is real lives being affected.

“Gamble responsibly?” Haha, yeah right, good one! Just download the app and get amongst it, you loser.

Then there’s this I love…

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