Gambling in sport

Bombers’ supplement saga exposes wider problem March 2013

The drug problem exposed by Essendon’s admission* and an ACCC investigation into major sport has brought home the disappointing spectre of organised crime being involved.

*Ten days out from their pre-season cup opener, the Essendon Bombers announce a joint investigation with the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) that will look into supplements given to its players in 2012” (ABC News 5 February 2013)


This had led to, and the voices will get louder, the public decrying gambling on sports.

Blame is an easy thing to assign.

How we got to this stage may be a little harder to understand?

How we get to the next stage with some dignity and believability left in the sporting games we love to watch, is even harder.

‘In the good ol’ days’, the only people who bet on sport were blokes at work or at the pub having a friendly wager on tomorrow’s game.

In those blissfully unsophisticated days, a staunch Swan Districts supporter may bet his best mate, who barracked for East Perth, a few quid that his team would win on the Saturday afternoon match. The bet would almost always be even money, even if East Perth were unbeaten and Swan Districts winless.

At various clubs across the nation, it may have been a bit more sophisticated with some individual – often a licensed bookmaker breaking the law – framing a market for the premiership and taking bets throughout the year, including the finals where he would set his odds on individual matches.

The Totalisator Agency Board did not bet on sports but devoted its attention to four-legged beasts of various kinds. The TAB, at least in this State, was created with a charter that made the placing of a bet the least attractive part of your gambling transaction.

Shops were Spartan in the extreme and built outside a certain radius of public houses and the like. If you backed a winner, you waited some time (15 minutes from memory) before they would pay out and loitering on the premises was not encouraged.

One day, governments woke up to these ‘rivers of gold’ that could be collected from the Aussie determination to have a punt.

At no risk to themselves, governments were able to take a growing percentage of the betting turnover on every race and realised that the more races you allowed punters to bet on, the more money you would take in so you could build roads and hospitals and pay the police and nurses and teachers.

Eventually, this wore down the poor old punter, who in the days when there was quite a bit of recreational income available in the family budget, bet on everything. He went broke, just a bit quicker than he would have if he only had Sydney, Melbourne and Perth events on which to bet.

Irrespective of this outcome, the TAB still took its massive cut from every pool and punters who backed a winner had already been effectively taxed, say 17 per cent, before the bet had been won. Winner backers collected their equal share of the pool, less this massive 17 per cent.

Professional gamblers bet with bookmakers but made forays to the tote (at racecourses but linked to the same pool as the TAB) when there was a marked difference to the bookmakers’ prices and that of the tote.

Bookmakers could only compete by offering better odds than the tote. They were forbidden by law to advertise and were also getting taxed on their turnover as well as paying a stand fee (or rental) of their stand at the track.


Then someone saw a gap. Why not combine the power and money of several individuals, form a company and take the TAB on at its own game, only let’s be a little bit adventurous and offer odds – because they had gamblers and bookies in their employ who knew how to frame prices. By not being greedy and taking 17 per cent before anyone got a taste of the action, these companies (let’s call them Ladbrokes, Joe Coral, William Hill) started in the United Kingdom and after the usual 20 years as used to happen in the 1960s and 70s, the idea filtered to Australia.

What did Australia’s TABs do during this 20-year hiatus? Provide seating in the shops, add the occasional exotic bet (quadrella, trifecta) and keep raking it in.

How did they get away with it? Governments weren’t going to dam the rivers of gold.

As Australian gamblers became more sophisticated, people wanted more. They wanted to bet on the Olympic Games, get odds for soccer and football and rugby league and even bet on who would be the next Prime Minister.

Governments decided to allow sports betting. “Hey, we can build this rort into as big an earner as racing.

By betting on sports, they opened the way for sports betting companies to be created. Pioneers did their best in a tough market and the lucky ones got bought out at a premium by the new Ladbrokes, Joe Corals and William Hills.

With the certainty that if you just put up the odds, the punters will eventually lose and using advertising budgets the size of Coca-Cola, these companies began to plague TV screens and sporting arenas with enticements to bet.

Where once, children were told by their parents not to go anywhere near the TAB, even though Daddy was going in for just a minute, today’s children sit beside their father at AFL matches (and I assume all the other major codes). Perhaps they nudge him in the ribs at half-time. “Look Dad, the Dockers are $3.25 and they’re only 14 points behind, that’s a good bet isn’t it?

To compete, governments of all persuasions had to give their TABs advertising budgets too and, with catchy names like Player, instead of TAB (acronym for Try Again Bunny) they too launched their appeal for your gambling dollar.

So now we have drugs in major sports and gambling is being blamed.

I don’t agree the two are as linked as some would have us believe but, if they are proven to be, then the fault lies with government. They happily took their greedy cut of the gambling dollar and gave it back as public infrastructure and public service wages.

Then again, that’s not such a bad thing for any Australians not affected by problem gambling.                                                                                                           

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