The Favourite

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If you watch sport, chances are you have seen sports gambling promotions. You have probably also noticed that the people in these promotions are usually male and they are usually smiling and winning. Like most promotional material though, the reality of the situation is a little different.

The reality is that if you watch sport on television, you will not avoid sports betting marketing. The value of sports betting advertising quadrupled between 2010 and 2012 (Hing, N. (2014). Sports Betting and Advertising (AGRC Discussion Paper No. 4). Melbourne: Australian Gambling Research Centre). In 2012, 3,069 individual sports betting advertisements were relayed over all forms of media, excluding social media. This included 528 individual sports betting advertisements, which were collectively played over 20,000 times on free-to-air TV and more frequently on pay TV (Hing, N. 2014). It is getting more prolific each year – over ten weeks from 30 August to 7 November 2014, the six main wagering providers collectively spent $12 million, running a total of 13,000 advertisements. Sportsbet spent the most during this time (over $5.5 million), while Tom Waterhouse paid for the most expensive individual advertisement, which cost $461,000 and was screened on television 347 times (Sproston, K., Hanley, C., Brook, K. (ORC International), Hing, N., Gainsbury, S. (2015). Study on Marketing of Sports Betting and Racing. Melbourne: Gambling Research Australia).

What does all this advertising do? Sports betting is the only gambling form for which participation rates have increased during the last decade (Gainsbury et al., 2014). Approximately one in seven (13%) adult Australians now gambles on sport (Hing, Gainsbury et al., 2014). Half of all sports betting is now conducted online (Hing, N., 2014) due to the 24/7 access via mobile apps and betting websites, as well as mobile wagering vans located at some sporting events. Yes, just in case you missed the many opportunities to gamble on your way to the game, you can rely on the mobile wagering van sitting outside the ground – useful if you don’t have a smartphone or access to the Internet, where you will also find many opportunities to gamble. Live coverage is streamed on some mobile betting apps, further incentivising sports enthusiasts into using this readily available medium.

Many sporting events, teams and stadiums have entered into commercial marketing arrangements with corporate bookmakers. This is most prominent in the two largest Australian sports, the Australian Football League (AFL) and the National Rugby League (NRL). These sports attract about half of all sports betting in Australia, with a doubling of turnover expected within five years from $750 million to $1.5 billion on the NRL and from $900 million to $1.8 billion for the AFL (Hing, N., 2014). As the sporting bodies receive marketing and product fees based on betting revenues, there is no incentive for them to reduce betting activity in the foreseeable future.

Sport is now used as a marketing platform to deploy huge investments of money by sports betting operators to recruit and retain customers. Particular concerns are that this marketing can encourage consumers to consider gambling as a sport, and that young people are learning about gambling through sport programming and merchandising, which can normalise and legitimise gambling uptake at a young age (Hing, N., 2014).

The embedding of sports betting promotions into live and televised sports is possibly the most controversial aspect of their marketing strategies, as it is mostly unavoidable for the viewing audience – many of which are likely to be children and young adults. I recall sitting at football games at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) seeing live betting odds splashed across the big screens while being announced to the crowd as a bit of harmless fun to talk about and follow throughout the game. Any number of live score apps come with betting odds right there next to the score, just in case you hadn’t seen those odds elsewhere. Even tipping websites (yes, footy tipping is considered harmless fun even though it’s usually a competition with a monetary prize) have live betting odds prominently displayed as well, presumably to help with deciding who you’re going to tip to win. Less subtle examples are when Tom Waterhouse was employed as a “special comments” analyst by Channel Nine during live broadcasts of NRL games, only to spruik the odds available at his betting agency. Or the financial market type newsflash segment, usually performed by an attractive female to get the target young male audience’s attention. This still occurs on subscription TV, as they cross to whichever betting agency has paid enough to get the slot and promote all those last minute options you have before the game starts, or during the game too. They usually wrap up these segments with a brief mention to gamble responsibly, after they have just saturated the TV viewing experience with their marketing strategies (more on this aspect later).

This embedded advertising can be particularly powerful because very little can be avoided, other than not watching the broadcast at all, or not attending the event. It is also likely to evoke an emotional response, rather than a rational one (Milner et al., 2013). Promotions occur at critical points when audiences are at their most attentive (e.g., when points are scored). Fixed advertising signs are all over stadiums, and some team uniforms. An audit of four live AFL matches held at two major stadiums in 2011 showed promotion of nine wagering brands during an average of 59 marketing communications (Milner et al., 2013; Thomas, Lewis, Duong et al., 2012).

The proliferation of sports betting advertising did result in community concern, especially in relation to the exposure to children and young adults. Some of the concern centred around the potential to normalise gambling among young viewers and potentially grooming a new generation of problem gamblers (Hing, Vitartas, & Lamont, 2013, 2014; Hunt, 2013; Lamont et al., 2011; McMullan, 2011).

“This “gamblification” of sport may transfer images associated with sport to promote gambling as healthy, harmless fun that, like sport, relies primarily on skill (Hing, Vitartas, & Lamont, 2014; Lamont et al., 2011; McMullan, 2011). Sports betting is becoming culturally embedded among young males, who report that peer discussions now include betting odds and that they feel pressured to gamble to fit in with their peers (Thomas, Lewis, McLeod et al., 2012). These promotions also undermine responsible gambling messages targeting young men, who are also the most at-risk group for gambling problems (Delfabbro, 2012)”.

Some evidence is showing that the proliferation of sports betting advertising is also negatively affecting problem gamblers. The University of Sydney Gambling Treatment Clinic has found that “the proportion of clients with sports betting-related problems increased fourfold between 2006-07 and 2010-11, with sports-embedded promotions reported as contributing substantially to these clients’ problems and relapses” (University of Sydney Gambling Treatment Clinic, 2011).

The extent of community concern in relation to sports betting advertising led to three separate government inquiries during the period between 2011 and 2013. “Following community concerns raised in these inquiries, Australian government pressure led to amendments to broadcast advertising codes from August 2013 to stop in-match commentary and on-screen displays of betting odds. Other promotional practices continue, including live odds promotions before match commencement. Ironically, airing of the statutory message to “gamble responsibly” has decreased with curtailment of live odds messages” (Hing, Vitartas, & Lamont, 2014). This is where a large part of the issue lies. If you watch live sport, you simply cannot avoid sports gambling messages. Whether it’s the casual mention of favourites through commentary, or the market style betting update before a game commences, or the copious number of sports betting advertisements throughout each broadcast, you won’t be able to avoid a reminder that you can easily go and throw some money at the game you’re watching. Seemingly, the only way to avoid it is to not watch the broadcast at all, nor read a newspaper, nor check your favourite sporting app, nor go anywhere near a computer with an Internet connection. How likely is any of this if you like to watch sport either regularly, or even occasionally? There’s also concern that it took three government inquiries before the industry finally acted, and even then, they only went a very small way towards removing the constant signals they give sports followers to go and gamble. It shows they cannot be trusted to self-regulate and will only act when pressured to do so. To further highlight the lack of self-regulation in the industry, an audit of sports betting advertising conducted in 2014 found that “responsible gambling messages were not commonly seen in either the televised or live sports or racing events observed. They were not displayed in many advertisements included in the content analysis and there were generally problems with legibility whenever they were present” (ORC International), Hing, N., Gainsbury, S. (2015). Study on Marketing of Sports Betting and Racing. Melbourne: Gambling Research Australia).

It has been found that gambling advertising can have particularly negative impact on problem gamblers. They report gambling advertisements as being a greater stimulation to gamble, a larger influence on spending than intended, and an encouragement for them to think that they will win. They also report that these advertisements can remind them about gambling, trigger gambling urges and undermine attempts to moderate their gambling. Bonus offers for sports betting, such as money-back guarantees and “free” bets that require matching deposits appear to particularly increase Internet gambling among problem gamblers. While gambling advertising has to date not been found to motivate many people to commence gambling, it has been shown to increase gambling among existing gamblers (Hing, N. 2014).

As research into the impact of sports betting advertising is still relatively new and ongoing, lessons could be learned from the advertising of other potentially harmful products in sport. Research has indicated that exposure to alcohol, tobacco and junk food advertising contributes to their uptake and consumption, especially among adolescents (Hing, N. (2014). Sports Betting and Advertising (AGRC Discussion Paper No. 4). Melbourne: Australian Gambling Research Centre). In fact, tobacco advertising at sporting events in Australia was banned some years ago, even though this caused a great controversy with particular international events such as the Formula One Grand Prix. As research continues on the sports betting industry, it will be interesting to see if a similar ban on sports betting advertising at sports events and on sports broadcasts ever eventuates. Given the amount of money being made through royalties and commissions to sporting bodies, this move might not be very likely.

There is a need for updated research into the impact that sports betting marketing is having on the community, particularly problem gamblers and the target markets of these companies (predominately young males). The trends from existing research are not going in a favourable direction for anyone other than the sports betting companies and the sports bodies themselves and I am reasonably sure we don’t need to put any odds on where current trends are heading. If my viewing of sport is anything to go by, this issue has become much more problematic than it was three or four years ago.

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