Sport And Betting Have Always Been Teammates

Victorian Greens senator Richard Di Natale has drafted a bill to ban betting odds being aired during sports broadcasts.

No, let’s rewrite that. Senator Di Natale has drafted a bill to kick Tom Waterhouse off the television.

Of course, Di Natale’s bill is no more likely to go anywhere than the other few dozen or so bills that have been introduced to the Parliament by minor parties. They are really just written for symbolic purposes.

And appropriately enough, in this case. Banning betting odds during broadcasts is the ultimate symbolic gesture – arbitrary feel-goodism masquerading as social policy.

The backlash against sports betting exposes the flimsy edifice that Australian culture has built around sport. On the one hand, we know sport is a multimillion-dollar corporate business where young and athletic men are split into groups, churned through training regimes, and paid to compete for our amusement. It is a vast money-making ecosystem.

Sport is like Hollywood, but much less risky: investors don’t have to worry about whether the creative types will come up with new and exciting stuff.

This industry is the world of Tom Waterhouse and government subsidies for stadiums and the Australian Crime Commission’s report into sports doping and the $1.2 billion the Seven Network and Foxtel paid for AFL television broadcast rights. It is a world where behaviour standards are written into player employment contracts to ”protect the brand”. People get rich, people get sacked, people get sued. In other words, sport is an industry like any other.

And that is all great. Industries are great. Yet onto this particular industry we impose a web of mythology and fantasy that tries to lift sport above a business to a quasi-religious undertaking. Nobody works themselves into a moral fervour about drug use in investment banking, or in motion pictures. But they do in sports. The sporting world is obsessed with honour and sportsmanship. And purity. It is no coincidence people keep calling for sporting codes to be “cleaned up”, or say a game was played “clean”.

The ideologists of sport proclaim it can bring communities together. In past eras – especially before the violent 20th century – they thought sport could replace warfare. These days, it is mostly about children and vague feelings of social cohesion. The federal government offers funding for a Multicultural Youth Sports Partnership Program. AFL clubs eagerly promote Harmony Day. It’s all very … romantic.

Yes, apparently there are still people who believe sport reduces social tension; people who are able to ignore the decades of violence and nationalistic politics that have swirled around domestic and international sport. And many of these romanticists appear to view the industry of sport with horror.

By now, everybody who is not a first-year arts student has come to terms with the fact that sport involves money. An older debate along these lines – about whether sport should remain amateur or go professional – looks very quaint from the vantage of the 21st century.

Sports betting is just the latest bogyman – yet another threat to that romantic vision. Yet betting on sport is as old as sport itself. One British sports historian, Wray Vamplew, says that much of the strict codification of the rules of sport in the 19th century was driven by the needs of gambling. Early punters found it hard to bet when the rules weren’t codified.

So the sudden panic about odds being broadcast on television is a bit precious – a triumph of the mythology of sport over the reality of sport. It is indicative that most critics of sports betting say they are not worried about the betting so much as seeing the odds on television. They don’t want to break the fantasy. They don’t want to see the revenue streams behind the curtain.

For the hyperbole and hand-wringing, sports betting is a tiny sliver of gambling in Australia.

The Queensland government keeps national gambling statistics. In 2009-10 (the latest year for which comparable figures are available), Australians spent a total of $18.5 billion on all gambling. This number includes everything from racetrack betting to pokies to TattsLotto. They only spent $303 million on sports betting – just over 1.5 per cent of the total.

Yet one academic proclaimed on The Conversation website last week that sports betting represented the steady ”gamblification” of everyday life – Tom Waterhouse is a sign that Australia is being buried by gambling.

The evidence suggests quite the opposite. Total expenditure on gambling has remained steady over the past decade. And if we take population growth into account, then in recent years gambling has begun to decline. Nothing here screams ”impending social problem”.

Instead, the Greens’ Richard Di Natale falls back on an old standard. ”It’s becoming increasingly hard for young kids to know where the sport ends and the gambling begins,” he said in a press release announcing his bill.

That’s the think-of-the-children argument, a favourite of censors, wowsers and reactionaries for two centuries.

It is fine to view sport through a romantic lens. But that lens won’t survive if it requires deliberate ignorance.