Gaming the politics of TV sports bet reform

Run a cursor across the acres of comments on stories about sports betting and the trumpeting of live odds on TV and an unmistakable message for government emerges: Stop this now.

Run a cursor across the acres of comments on stories about sports betting and the trumpeting of live odds on TV and an unmistakable message for government emerges: Stop this now.

In a letter published in Fairfax Media on Thursday, Lynne Poleson put it like this: "Stephen Conroy and his cohort are fond of talking about 'working families'. Have they not seen the figures on compulsive gambling and what it does to these working families? How can they support the social evil that is sports betting? A whole generation of children from families who can least afford it will suffer as a consequence."

On Twitter, the rage aimed at betting spruikers - more often than not the ubiquitous Tom Waterhouse - is as fierce as it has been sustained since the start of the football season when Waterhouse famously nestled into the bosom of Channel Nine's commentary team and began talking shop, including the odds on the next day's races.

This week, a poll of 1400 people found two-thirds supported a ban on gambling advertising - 84 per cent supported scrapping ads while children are watching TV. Twenty thousand people in 24 hours signed a petition calling for change. For a government desperate for love, it seems like a no-brainer. So what has stopped Conroy stepping in?

Predictably, it's a lot about the money. Not the government's revenue. Tabcorp, Sportingbet and Tom Waterhouse combined couldn't putty up the holes in the budget. But for Australian TV networks, the ones that will shape the way the election campaign looks to Australia, sports betting is a crucial and growing source of cash. With billion-dollar AFL and Rugby League deals in hand for Channel Nine and Seven, in partnership with Foxtel, it has never been more important to grab every dollar they can from advertisers.

Nine's head of regulatory affairs, Scott Briggs, told Parliament's gambling reform committee in March: "In an advertising market which is currently falling, every bit of revenue is important to us as broadcasters." Especially when you consider the investments they are trying to recoup.

Seven, Foxtel and Telstra paid $1.25 billion for a new five-year deal to broadcast AFL and it was not long after it came back from the financial brink last year that Channel Nine outlaid more than $1 billion securing ongoing NRL rights.

While punters are screaming for a complete ban in an attempt at damage control, the betting agencies are talking about a "live odds ban" on television. This does not appear to rule out the likes of Waterhouse and his ilk advertising as they do, as long as they don't mention live odds.

Commercial television, which earns its revenue from advertising, is also trying to convince the public it is doing something to address the perceived problem. Its self-imposed ban on gaming advertising applies only while the game is in play but during stoppages and if it is clearly advertising, they can continue to spruik.

While no broadcaster would admit it, the competition for sport broadcast rights is so intense the victor is almost certainly assured of losing money on the contract. What they get is a significant, guaranteed, audience that will, hopefully, stick to the network's other programming. This is why Ten plans to spend up to $500 million to snatch the cricket broadcast rights from Nine in time for the Ashes series.

Sports marketing expert Colin Smith, of Global Media and Sports, estimates that 10 per cent of TV ad revenue comes from the online bookies, including Centrebet, Sportsbet and Betfair, along with those mentioned above. The figure is said to be a little more than $400 million but could be higher with tie-up deals such as Sportsbet's rights to sponsor Nine's footy shows. Waterhouse paid Nine $9.5 million for the right to incite punters from the sidelines.

When it appeared in front of the parliamentary gambling reform committee, the Australian Wagering Council, which represents the corporate bookies, agreed to submit on notice exactly how much the industry spends on promoting itself. But, when the answers came back, no figure was included.

Julie Flynn, the head of FreeTV, the body representing the networks, made it clear this week that networks would not give away gambling revenue easily, raising the prospect that sports fans would be the victim of stricter regulations.

"We are determined to get an outcome that balances the community concerns and ... being able to broadcast live sport to all Australians for free," she said.

Both the television and gambling industries have massive clout in Canberra. A search of the lobbyist register reveals Betfair retains Government Relations Australia, whose stable of lobbyists includes former Keating government treasurer John Dawkins. Sportingbet, the largest online bookie, pays former Keating staffer Adam Kilgour and his Diplomacy agency to open doors.

In what looms as another lobbyist-related headache for an Abbott government, the head of the Wagering Council is Chris Downy, the president of the NSW Liberal Party. The situation is likely to arise in which Downy is lobbying Abbott and the likely communications minister - both members of the same state branch of the party he presides over.

Downy refused to answer questions about whether he had advised Waterhouse on his strategy in Canberra, which this week saw him escape having to front the gambling committee despite two invitations from Parliament. "We represent all our members," he said.

Conroy acknowledged this week that he has had frequent and recent meetings with the TV industry on the question of betting. Senator Richard Di Natale, one of two MPs pushing a private member's bill that would ban live odds and gambling ads, believes Conroy is afraid to act despite the public support for reform. "He does not want to pick a fight with the TV networks in the lead-up to an election, it's as simple as that", Di Natale said.

It's fair to say Conroy is still licking his wounds from the stoush over media reforms but Di Natale said the government's choice to stick with the process of TV industry self-regulation will not appease the public. Under the latest proposal, commentators would be prohibited from promoting odds but Waterhouse and other gambling representatives would be free to spruik odds before games, during half and quarter-time breaks and at the final whistle.

But in a big development on Thursday, the online betting industry itself called for a ban on live odds. Much now hinges on whether the TV industry will agree to amend the code before it is handed to the Australian Communications and Media Authority on Monday.

The public is unlikely to have the patience for ACMA's bureaucrats to complete an expected month-long review, which is why the odds are shortening by the day that the government will have to act.

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