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AFL returns, so too do gambling ads

By Rev Tim Costello, Chief Advocate, Alliance for Gambling Reform

Like most Victorians I am delighted the AFL returns to our screens this week. It’s our game and it has been missed by millions of fans of all ages. 

What I am not looking forward to is the association between the AFL and gambling, and the inevitable uptick in gambling advertising. Anyone who has watched commercial television since the coronavirus lockdown has no doubt noticed our screens are flooded with gambling ads.

Every ad break during family-friendly shows such as Masterchef has had gambling advertising during the pandemic, and it’s disturbing. 

Not only can people experiencing gambling harm not escape these ads, they’re also deliberately promoting gambling when children and young people are watching. They are grooming the next generation of sports lovers to believe gambling is glamorous, that it’s an integral part of sport, and that it is a normal part of Australian society. It’s insidious and frankly disgusting.

Anecdotally, this exposure has only worsened since COVID-19. The gambling industry is one that still has money to spend on advertising, thanks to raking in millions from gambling harm, so it has been in a position to negotiate great deals with broadcasters to air even more ads than they normally would.

Now that AFL is coming back, the gambling industry will no longer just be advertising betting on horseracing, which has continued in many states during the COVID-19 lockdown, but it will also start promoting gambling on AFL games and players once again.

Constant gambling advertising promoting all sorts of ‘bonus bets’ will undoubtedly trigger some people to gamble again, or gamble more, perhaps with savings made during lockdown, or even worse -- with superannuation withdrawals, as has been reported.

But there is also an often unspoken problem that lies with children and young people being bombarded by these ads, and during timeslots designated for family viewing.

Western Bulldogs Captain Easton Wood hit the nail on the head when he tweeted: “Gambling advertising is out of control and I think it needs to change...why – as an industry – do we support the onslaught of gambling advertising you’re now faced with when watching an AFL game...The big question is do we think the normalization of gambling – particularly to kids – is acceptable in this day and age?”

Thankfully we’ve answered Easton’s question before when faced with another profitable, harmful and normalised product: tobacco. 

Tobacco sponsorship and advertising was banned because it was acknowledged it was not only promoting an unhealthy product, but also because it normalised smoking and made it appealing to children. The same principles apply to gambling advertising. Some sporting codes rejected tobacco advertising, but it took government leadership to enforce a ban across all sport and broadcasters. This is the opportunity before the Federal Government today. 

The Federal Government took a small step forward when it banned gambling advertising during live broadcasts, yet its own research tells us the total volume of gambling ads has increased by 50% since this time. Whether watching on television, or at the game, you simply cannot escape the loud, brash and colourful ads and signage. This is despite the well established connections between gambling harm and issues including mental ill-health and family violence.

Exposure to gambling advertising has been found to be higher in adolescence than adults thanks to a surge in digital media, and three quarters of Australian children reportedly believe that wagering has become a normal part of sport. That’s not normal!

Even more disturbing is that one in three high school students report they have already gambled. When you consider that sports wagering is the fastest-growing form of gambling in Australia, doubling in the five years to 2017-2018, with losses now exceeding more than $1 billion annually, we have a crisis on our hands that cannot be ignored.

In banning gambling advertising we are returning sport to its values of fair play, community and team spirit. Team loyalty spans generations. Online sports gambling has barely been around for more than a decade. Yet research shows the 12 years since the metaphorical floodgates opened has been enough to influence an entire generation into believing there is an inextricable link between enjoying sport and gambling. That’s exactly the outcome the gambling industry wanted, and what they will continue to fight for until the Federal Government does the right thing and steps in to ban gambling advertising for good.

COVID-19 has presented us with some tremendous opportunities to rethink the way we do things, and reset our society. The Federal Government has a real opportunity to reduce gambling harm by banning gambling advertising, and the AFL has a chance to disassociate from a harmful product. I hope these opportunities are not squandered for the sake of generations to come.

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