John doesn’t know where the impulse to open an online sports betting account came from. His redundancy from a high-paying job as a credit manager at a major steel firm certainly had something to do with it. As did the $190k payout that was sitting idly in his bank account as he knocked back a few beers one night in December 2016. He was, rather ominously, a man with time on his hands. But as it would turn out, John wouldn’t actually need much time to blow up his life.
PREVIOUSLY A SPORADIC GAMBLER who liked to wager a few bob at lunchtimes at the TAB with his workmates—“you’d win some, you’d lose some, it was all under control”—one night about a month after his redundancy, “for some unknown reason”, John decided he felt like a punt. “I’d had too many drinks to jump in the car and go to the TAB so I thought I’ll open an online account,” the 58-year-old father of three tells me from the flat he rents in Mitcham in Melbourne’s east. “Before I knew it, I had the account up and running.” Within three weeks, he’d lost the lot.
Astonishingly, after he wrote to the gambling company that took the bets, they agreed to refund the amount in full. What happened next defies logic, not that reasoning is of much relevance to those in the grip of a gambling addiction. A couple of weeks after receiving his refund John opened another account with exactly the same result. “Within two weeks, I’d gambled the whole lot away.”
How does John explain what happened in a way that will make sense to anyone? He can’t. “When I think of it now, it’s like a different person did all this,” he says. “I can’t even imagine today what my mindset was back then, but I can remember one thing that was quite clear to me: I had to get some of the money back. My luck had to change.”
Incredibly, that wasn’t the end. In fact, in terms of his losses, it was only the beginning. After being put on a disability pension due to mental health problems, John was able to access his super, as well as an insurance payout, a total of $436k. After a financial counsellor helped him sign onto a Northern Territory-run self-exclusion register (a voluntary register gamblers can join to prevent them being able to wager for a specified time period), John promptly got online with a WA-based gambling company and lost $248k in six months. This time he self-excluded in WA but then proceeded to set up an account with a NSW- based company. It was there that he lost most of his remaining super, including $117k in one 48-hour frenzy. All of it on online sports gambling accounts, in which he bet on horses, trots, greyhounds and footy.
That’s how John finds himself today, separated from his wife—she left after discovering a letter he’d written to a gambling company asking for a refund—and subsisting on his disability pension. The only reason he hasn’t taken his own life, he says, is because of his brown Labrador, Harley.
“I kept thinking to myself, Harley’s going to spend the rest of his life looking for me and who’s going to look after him,” he says. “That was the only reason I didn’t go down that path.”
John is at the very deep end of the problem gambling spectrum. His story is an outlier but shows what can happen when seemingly innocuous betting platforms and their attendant advertising encourage people, men mostly, to wager on sports without sufficient safeguards in place.
The sports betting industry in Australia is a behemoth based largely out of the Northern Territory, where there are 32 sports bookmakers and two betting exchanges, including industry giants SportsBet, Bet365 and Entain. While horse racing has long been legal, betting on other sports began in 1983, with the first private sportsbook, SportsBet, obtaining a licence ten years later. Sports betting then went online in 1996, with the launch of centrebet.com.au.
Fast-forward 27 years and according to figures from the NT Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade, the value of bets taken by Australian sports betting companies on racing and sporting codes each year is over $50 billion. ASX-listed Tabcorp—which is licensed through each state separately due to its shopfront presence, recorded $4.9 billion in online wagering in July-December last year.
Figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show sports bettors are overwhelmingly male (88 per cent), aged between 18 and 49 (75 per cent), and working full-time (70 per cent). On average, those individuals spend close to half their typical gambling outlay on sports betting, while forty-one per cent of them have experienced one or more gambling problems.
The recent parliamentary inquiry’s report into online gambling titled, “You win some, you lose more”, has put gambling advertising in its crosshairs, calling for tighter regulations and a phased, comprehensive ban within three years. Community sentiment has hardened against the volume, timing and relentless nature of the advertisements. It’s likely something will be done.
“We’re only in this position because we’ve been able to demonstrate the community opinion,” says Tim Costello, an advocate for the Alliance for Gambling Reform, former CEO of World Vision Australia, and Baptist minister. “And what really changed was parents saying, ‘How come 10-year-olds know the logos, the jingles and the odds of different sports betting companies?’ There was a collective psychic vomit across the nation, of parents saying how is this allowed. Kids are being robbed of a childhood.”
Some would argue this is the inflammatory language of a career firebrand. But even Costello doesn’t argue that gambling should be illegal. “I’m not, never have been, a prohibitionist,” he says. “Adults absolutely have a right to pursue gambling. But the ads should be banned.”
The fact is, Australians love sport and they love gambling. Depending on your view, the ease of online betting has either helped lubricate an unholy marriage or played innocent matchmaker in uniting two perfectly suited paramours. But as this relationship comes under increasing scrutiny, you have to wonder if sport and gambling might just be too well suited. After all, both rely on there being winners and losers. The question is does gambling need losers more?
PERHAPS JOHN’S SELF-INFLICTED misfortune did happen to a different person. Certainly his life today bears little resemblance to the one he once led. Back in the early 2010s he was earning a better-than-decent living—$130k a year, in fact—in his job as a credit manager. “I was responsible for collecting over a hundred million dollars a month,” he says. “I was very good with other people’s money.”
Gambling problems as severe as John’s don’t occur in a vacuum. “There’s a lot of things in the pot that got me to the lowest point where I was just self-harming in a financial way,” he says, citing his redundancy, stress from previous workplace issues, as well as the onset of severe depression.
But it’s doubtful his descent would have been as swift without online sports betting accounts and the ease with which they facilitate wagering. “Where online gambling is so much more dangerous than going into a TAB is that your account balance is just the number on the top of the screen,” says John. “So it’s just $20,000, $50,000, whatever the deposit is. In a TAB, you’d have to walk in with a wheelbarrow.”
John would get online at six o’clock at night, telling himself it was “for an hour” and emerge at 3am, bereft. In the online space, contrary to the banter and blokey bonhomie portrayed in gambling ads, you’re often on your own. “There’s nobody there and you can just keep on depositing,” he says.
The pathway into sports betting and, for some people, gambling problems, can be an attractive one. What starts out as a fun way to enhance the experience of watching sport with your mates can, for some people, quickly mutate into something else, says Alex Russell, an associate professor at Central Queensland University’s Experimental Gambling Research Laboratory. “It’s like I’m watching the game and I’ll make it a bit more exciting and put a bet on, especially if my mates are doing it,” says Russell, who describes his views on gambling as neutral and data focused. “Similar to drinking, you start off drinking with friends and if it really grabs you then you start drinking at home alone. That’s one pathway into problems.”
But not for everyone. Motivations play a critical role in determining the route a sports bettor will take. Some guys, particularly hardcore sports fans, are motivated purely by increasing their stake in the outcome of the game in order to make it more exciting.
David, a father of three from Sydney’s northern suburbs, has wagered sporadically for over a decade in this fashion. “I tend to bet on things that I’m actually watching, in that it makes it more enjoyable,” he says. “Usually it’s when I’m not that bothered about the result and you’ve suddenly got skin in the game.” The other type of bet he often makes is when he believes he has an edge due to his inside knowledge. “Just because it might be my team,” he says.
David says he was never particularly interested in betting on sports before it went online and he could put bets on using his phone. “I think I was probably seduced by TV ads,” he says.
He opened his account ten years ago with $100, topping it up again with another $100 a few years later. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a situation where I’ve bet really big to the point where I’d be absolutely gutted if I lost,” he says. “It’s always like $30 or something like that. It’s not going to ruin my whole night.” His account balance currently sits at $377. “I’m technically up $177 after 10 years of betting and whatever pleasure that’s given me,” he says. “I’m somebody who can have a couple of drinks a night and I don’t worry about becoming an alcoholic. I have the odd donut, but I don’t worry about being obese. And I think I can have the odd bet without having a serious betting problem.”
Aside from enhancing the sports fan’s experience, another common motivation is socialising. Bets can be the subject of competition and banter between mates, something the ads consistently mine. “There can be some gambling for ego, where it’s about who’s the best,” says Russell.
But from there, you begin to move into some of the more problematic motivations, such as gambling for money. Often these gamblers don’t even watch the game or race they’re wagering on. “Usually because they’ve got so many bets on, they can’t watch them all,” says Russell. The worst motivation, he says, is gambling to cope with stress or trauma. “It’s the same as people who drink to cope. It’s not a great reason to be doing it.”
In one particular study, Russell and team found five stressful life events—work issues, financial issues, legal issues, relationship issues and the death of a loved one—were associated with the onset of heavy gambling, but also with cessation of gambling problems, too. “We don’t really know why,” admits Russell, who says problem gambling is often episodic or characterised by binges that can’t be sustained. “It may be that they’re experiencing these problems anyway, and then they realise that gambling didn’t actually help with anything. Maybe it made things worse.”
The question of responsibility for losses, even ones on the scale of John’s (he says he takes 95 per cent of the responsibility for his losses), is something that has evolved in recent years. “Everyone used to say it was up to the player to keep themselves safe and their fault if they get in trouble,” says Russell. “That’s shifted more to a model where operators, governments, have a responsibility too.”
After his redundancy, John lost a major pillar of his identity and self-esteem. It was enough to open the door to the lure of vices. “I remember talking to a psychiatrist at the height of all of this and he said to me, ‘Look, the prime minister of Australia could be five decisions away from being an unemployed drug addict’. Do we get in the car with that person who’s had too much to drink? Do we go to the party and have that first marijuana smoke?” The logical next question remains unsaid: do you see an ad for sports betting and decide to open an account?
FRIDAY NIGHT FOOTY is prime time for sports gambling ads. Under existing laws, ads are banned during live sports broadcasts between 5am until 8.30pm, and for five minutes before and after play. After 8.30pm, though, the gates are unlocked and you can expect to be blitzed by ads and updated on odds on the evening’s match, with notifications on available bets, such as the first try or goal scorer, as well as bonus bets, known as inducements.
Ads are also banned during children’s shows but that doesn’t stop them popping up in other forms of programming, such as commercial news bulletins. “Sports betting ads can be in the commercial 6 o’clock news, on MasterChef, on The Block, on family friendly programs,” says Costello. “You can’t do that for alcohol. You can’t do that for cigarettes. It’s a complete anomaly.”
A report by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation (VRGF) released earlier this year found there were an average of over 900 sports betting ads a day on commercial TV. According to data from Nielsen’s Ad Intel Panel, a total of $310m was spent on advertising on broadcast networks in 2022, the majority of which came from SportsBet and Tabcorp.
The ads follow a distinct formula, often showing groups of mates having a laugh in pubs with an aggressively blokey voiceover. Some of them are clever, some are moronic. They are certainly relentless. More importantly, they work. “When you’re spending more than Harvey Norman, or any other advertiser in Australia, just on advertising, you know they work,” says Costello.
Russell’s colleague, professor Nerilee Hing, led a study on the effectiveness of gambling advertising funded by the VRGF, that found on days when participants saw more ads, they were more likely to break their intention to abstain, while those who planned to bet, wagered more when they saw more ads. “It’s not a shocker that advertising’s effective,” deadpans Russell.
Dee Madigan, executive creative director at the agency Campaign Edge and a regular panellist on Gruen, agrees that sports betting ads are effective in appealing to the target market, as well as in normalising the behaviour. “They do the mateship thing because they know one of the barriers is that you are seen as a bit of a loser gambling by yourself,” she says. “If it’s something you’re doing with your friends then somehow it makes it okay. It becomes less of a gamble and more of a game.”
The comic nature of the ads reinforces the notion that gambling is harmless fun, which, for many guys, it is, while promoting betting as a means for men to talk to each other, Madigan believes.
Within the advertising industry there are mixed feelings about the ethics of producing content that has the potential to cause harm. Madigan draws parallels to the old days of cigarette advertising. “They [gambling companies] are clients with big budgets who often want really interesting ideas,” she says. “And this was exactly like tobacco advertising—Benson and Hedges ads were award-winning and a lot of creatives wanted to work on them.” Agencies that do take the money from betting companies, “will often do pro bono work for a charity to offset their guilt,” says Madigan.
While in favour of tighter regulations on advertising, Madigan stops short of an outright ban. “I am not a fan of banning legal products,” she says. “I feel like adults need to be able to make adult decisions.”
A total ban on gambling ads does raise the question of where revenue that often goes toward worthwhile projects will come from. After the parliamentary inquiry’s report was released, Free TV, a lobby group for commercial broadcasters was quick to raise concerns about their ability to fund Australian content, advocating instead for measures like frequency caps to allay community concerns around the volume of advertising.
For its part, the gambling industry appears to recognise the need for advertising to be reined in but is adamant a complete ban would be a step too far. “We are committed to reducing the number of ads that Australians see,” said Kai Cantwell, CEO of Responsible Wagering Australia (RWA), in a statement to Esquire Australia. “However, blanket bans on gambling advertising are extreme overreach, go well beyond what the community is calling for and will rip hundreds of millions of dollars out of sports and broadcasters—money that flows back into regional broadcasters, keeping sport cheap and free to participate in and keeping sport on free-to-air TV.”
And that’s the rub. Are gambling and sport so intertwined that if gambling advertising and even sponsorship were outlawed, sporting bodies would be materially affected? The AFL and NRL both have ‘official wagering partners’ while individual clubs have sponsorship deals with gambling companies, displaying their logos on team jerseys.
While the relationship is certainly cosy, Russell believes it could be unwound without affecting the codes’ viability, citing the fact that the US, where sports betting was only legalised in most states in 2018, managed to sustain a far bigger sports industry than we have here in Australia, without it.
Costello agrees, citing the precedent of cigarette and alcohol sponsorship bans. “The response at the time to losing tobacco sponsorship is exactly the same response today of the sporting codes,” he says. You do have to wonder, though, if gambling effectively replaced the revenue from those products.
Of course, a ban wouldn’t just impact professional sports. The RWA argues grassroots community sports could also lose out. “We know that for every dollar spent on sport in Australia, we see a $7 return on that investment in health, economic and social benefits,” Cantwell said, while also pointing out that tighter regulations could drive bettors offshore or to illegal gambling sites. The RWA cites figures that show that since Norway introduced a state monopoly for all gaming coupled with restrictions on stakes, affordability checks and advertising, the black market there now accounts for over 66 per cent of the entire market.
Russell says while it’s possible to bet offshore, it’s not exactly easy. You need a VPN to hide your IP address; the Australian Communications Media Authority (ACMA) blocks offshore websites; and most offshore operators—the legal ones, anyway—are largely complying with Australian regulations and won’t accept bets from Australian bank accounts. “You usually have to circumvent quite a few safeguards to do it, so you put yourself at risk,” says Russell, who doesn’t believe there’s much appetite for offshore bets among punters here, at least under the current regulatory framework. “I think a lot of people are just really happy to accept what’s available here. There are plenty of opportunities.”
If, as looks likely, advertising on broadcast channels is tightened up, Russell predicts gambling companies will simply shift their focus to direct messaging, which is less likely to draw community ire and no less effective in encouraging punters to bet. “People who get tons of emails and SMSs tend to bet more than intended or bet when they’re not intending to,” he says, adding that the messages can be more personalised and generally lead to more immediate actions. “There are a lot of benefits for operators to being forced to shift to that kind of marketing,” he says.
One recent victory for anti-gambling proponents is the introduction of BetStop, the National Self Exclusion Registrar, which launched on August 21. The initiative allows problem gamblers to self-exclude from all licensed interactive wagering services for a minimum of three months and up to a lifetime.
John believes if a national register had been in place when he was at his lowest it could have prevented him from sustaining such severe losses. “I put in my self-exclusion with the Northern Territory,” he says. “Had that been on a national basis, I would still have my $436,000.” He believes the three-month exclusion period would have imposed a sufficient obstacle to his impulsive decision making. “What I needed all the way along was a moment’s pause.”
Costello is confident some of the proposals from the parliamentary inquiry will be adopted but ultimately fears measures won’t lead to any real or systemic change. “The biggest, most powerful vested interests in Australia have gone to work in secret,” he says. “AFL, NRL, sports betting companies. The RWA is just a retirement home for former politicians. This [parliamentary] committee flushed out what’s going on and what’s been a very secretive industry, but one that’s so well politically connected, being the superannuation program for ex-pollies on both sides. We’re really up against it. These are very powerful forces.”
Indeed, in this battle, for once, perhaps it is easy to pick a winner.
National Gambling Helpline 1800 858 858; Lifeline 13 11 14.