This article was originally published on The Roar on 10 May 2017.
Are you the kind of person who fancies a cheeky punt? The odd slap? A mischievous bankruptcy?
Gambling in sport is by no means a new phenomenon. It’s been written about at length, each season heralding a new swathe of jarring sponsorships (RIP Brookvale) and controversy.
That’s part of the problem. It’s bedded in. For every minor regulation brought in to curb the promotion of betting, the hydra simply grows more heads. Joel Caine announces first try scorer odds as routinely as if he were introducing the team lineups. We hate it, but we’re resigned to this on our TV coverage.
Meanwhile, social media is a fiercely contested frontier for our hearts, minds, and brand loyalty. The likes of Sportsbet and TAB are going at it, meme for meme. And we’re liking, lol-ing and tagging indiscriminately, seemingly uncaring that we’re feeding the beast.
We’re not railroaded into solitary channels online. We can pick and choose the content we consume, so the battle becomes a more subtle one. Bookies are racing to serve up the choicest cuts from the world of sport ‒ highlights, gifs, and grouse captions ‒ desperate for our approval.
Some of it’s good content. A lot of it isn’t. But the respective social media managers know how to speak the language of their audience. They tap into our parochialism and thirst for sporting schadenfreude.
While it might get us to crack a smile as we scroll, or provide ready-made ‘banter’ for our colleagues on Monday, it’s worth considering the source. The dance of the bookies on social media is pure misdirection. They need eyes on their brand so they can get their meat hooks in (and keep them there). Ladbrokes, William Hill ‒ the lot of them ‒ they’re all just jockeying for the chance to bleed you dry.
Just because they don’t have Tom Waterhouse’s shit-eating grin as a welcome mat doesn’t mean they’re your mates. It’s worth noting that a number of former sportsmen who end up working for the bookies are trapped into doing so by their own gambling debts.
If you can enjoy the occasional bet whilst maintaining control, more power to you. But this is empirically not the case for many punters. Wherever you stand on the philosophical ‘free will’ debate, as humans we’re vice-seeking missiles. It doesn’t take much to reach a point where we can no longer help ourselves. Once addiction takes hold, logic swiftly departs.
You can’t love sport and love sports betting. No doubt some will disagree, but it really is that simple. Is our attention so fickle that we need to gamify games themselves? If I bet on my team and they lose, I resent them. If I bet against them, the conflict ruins my viewing regardless. Even betting on neutral teams gives me anxiety.
Bookies offer endless incentives ‒ $100 to sign up; another $100 for each friend you refer. This comes in the form of ‘bonus bets’. It’s a mirage. They don’t actually think you can win. In fact, they’re banking on the fact that you’ll not only lose, but develop a debilitating compulsion to keep losing.
Still, solid memes I suppose.
All bookmakers are just different strains of a pathogen hellbent on normalising itself. At best, it will hamper your enjoyment of sport. At worst, it will ruin your life and those around you. When it’s not mining fans’ pockets, betting is corrupting players and officials. Watch Benjamin Best’s documentary ‘Dirty Games’ if you’re in the mood to thoroughly depress yourself.
For hopes of renewed integrity from governing bodies, I’m afraid the battle is all but lost. As a 2012 Deloitte report states, “Because [the NRL and AFL] receive marketing and product fees based on betting revenues, sporting bodies are also motivated to maintain and promote a competitive, innovative wagering product.”
That report was commissioned by Sportsbet, by the way. So confident in their status that they’ll happily outline the ways in which they are evil ‒ like a villain who has the protagonist bound and gagged.
Sporting bodies have invited bookies to be the lucrative rod for their back. Even in the unlikely event administrators could be shamed by their own hypocrisy, they’re in too deep to extricate themselves.
Their argument is based on the fact that betting on sport will occur whether it’s sanctioned or not. At least this way they get a piece of the pie. Considering the ongoing struggle of the NRL, in particular, to clean up its image, this excuse doesn’t really wash. At present, only four NRL teams are without a gambling sponsor ‒ the Bulldogs, Dragons, Panthers, and Roosters ‒ although the latter has a short term loans sponsor which is arguably more insidious.
In contrast, social media remains a democratic space ‒ to the point of chaos at times, but democratic nonetheless. This is where we can exercise some agency, some resistance to the procession. Don’t blindly engage with the betting banter. Our social feeds are crowded enough as it is.
As far as the betting vultures are concerned, it isn’t about whether you win or lose, it’s how (long) you play the game.