Gambling ad blitz in sport is a turn-off

Gambling ad blitz in sport is a turn-off

In an aside to their conversation at the Byron Bay Writers Festival last weekend, Robert Drewe and Ben Quilty despaired of the ubiquity of gambling advertising in sport. From the audience, there came a low growl of affirmation.

Drewe then drove with Hemingway-like concision to the heart of the risible disclaimer that accompanies betting ads. “Responsible gambling,” Drewe said, “is not gambling.”

Cameron Smith speaks to the media during a press conference at the LIV Golf event near Boston.Credit:Getty

This was not a convocation of bookish elitists looking down their noses at the sporting proletariat. Quilty, a painter and social commentator, has a healthy sense of the absurdity of sport, but at nearly 50 still plays and loves cricket.

Drewe, journalist and author, is an avid watcher, who having grown up in Perth and lived for a long time in Melbourne, prefers AFL. To this far-northern NSW crowd, this made him more suspicious than if he had disowned sport altogether.

Both have written recent books with sporting themes and their conversation was entitled Sporting Heroes. Their session was strongly subscribed. These people liked sport. They were just sick of how it had been hijacked.

A similar bristling could be discerned across the nation that same day when American basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal popped up next to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to add his voice to the voices for a Voice to Parliament. “I’m here in your country,” O’Neal said to Albanese. “Whatever you need from me, let me know.”

Shaquille O’Neal and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.Credit:Flavio Brancaleone

Setting aside the cultural cringe for a moment – O’Neal, but not Patty Mills? – most Australians know that O’Neal is in our country on a lavishly paid gig to promote a gambling agency. We know because the ads are every-bloody-where.

It’s been called a gimmick, but that’s too glib. Whether initiated by the basketballer or the politician, it was cynical. O’Neal was putting in his token bib for one vulnerable group while cashing in on the exploitation of another.

This is not anti-gambling per se. It is anti the way gambling promotions are shoved down our throats and up our noses. It is anti the infantilisation of sports fans. One of Quilty’s themes is masculinity. Betting ads are pitched to a lame caricature of Australian masculinity, taking us all for simpletons (no correspondence will be entered into!).

Even if you can gloss over the insidious effect this brainwashing has on enough of the population to make it a documented social menace, you cannot ignore the ruinous effect it has on the amenity of watching sport. You cannot ignore the fact that it’s impossible to ignore it. It gets into you, not like an earworm, but a carcinogenic.

Steve Smith gets in for his whack this week.Credit:Getty Images

If you complain, you’re likely to be told that you can always watch on pay TV with no or fewer ads. It’s true. But it’s all of a piece. The deafening glut of gambling ads, the pushing onto children of merchandise designed to be obsolete next year, the secretion of sport behind paywalls: that piece is sport as commodity.

Somewhere along the way, Australia’s enjoyment of sport has been confiscated from us and sold back to us as something we must buy to guarantee our place in sports heaven. The Catholic Church and its Middle Ages indulgences had nothing on the ecclesiastics of 21st century sport. Sport has become crowdfunding for millionaires.

AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan this week,Credit:AFL Photos

Have a look around this week; it’s been all about the ledger, not the scorecard. Golfers Cameron Smith and Marc Leishman are following Greg Norman to the promised landing strip. Norman affects to be shaking up pro golf, but Smith himself baldly calls it a “business decision”. What he will learn is that sports events whose sole raison d’etre is money soon enough become dead to watch, dead to play and then die. There’s a long history to say so.

As negotiations for a new, 10-figure AFL TV rights deal draw to a close, still on the table is the possibility that more games will be pixelated away on pay. A “Super Saturday” is proposed. It certainly will be super for someone’s already super super.

Almost as if to offset this, the AFL announces a funding boost for community footy, $17 million next year, thereafter 10 per cent of the AFL’s annual “assessable income,” whatever that is. AFL CEO Gillon McLachan called this “truly historic”.

At the sub-pro level, footy is bleeding to death. By the AFL’s own figures in the same release, $17 million equates to $35 a head for all registered players. That’s about half a football each.

At the same time, Cricket Australia is trying to head off a mass exodus from its modestly lucrative Big Bash League to fabulously rich leagues in South Africa and the Gulf. CA figures it needs an extra $30 million.

As reported by Daniel Brettig in these pages, among the funding options are to secrete more games away on pay TV, flog bits or all of the BBL off to Indian entrepreneurs and/or American venture capitalists, or jack up charges on club and junior cricketers.

And still it might not be enough. Steve Smith is holding out for a better BBL deal. Anyone would think he was a bit short of scratch. Meanwhile, a national jobs summit was convened and one of its agenda items was five years or more of stagnation in real wages for Australian workers and what to do about it.

The disconnect has rarely before been so stark. Honestly, to the various Smiths, tell someone who cares.

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