Sports betting genie won't return to bottle despite crusade

The minor curtailment of Tom Waterhouse's invasion of our television screens has all manner of well-meaning souls feeling warm and fuzzy about their crusade to protect innocent kiddies from knowing a little more about the games adults play. Or maybe it's just the promise of being rid of some very annoying ads.

The minor curtailment of Tom Waterhouse's invasion of our television screens has all manner of well-meaning souls feeling warm and fuzzy about their crusade to protect innocent kiddies from knowing a little more about the games adults play. Or maybe it's just the promise of being rid of some very annoying ads.

The reality, though, is that the public campaign and resultant political knee-jerk over Waterhouse and his peers have achieved three-fifths of very little indeed if it's supposed to be curtailing the gambling genie.

On the most recent data, Australians were fluttering $3.3 billion a year on sports betting - barely 2 per cent of the $160.4 billion total punt. (By way of comparison, that total is $3.5 billion more than Canberra expects to collect in personal income tax this year.)

Fiddling about with the annoyance of hearing betting odds during the oranges break is swatting at a gnat on the back of the gambling elephant: pokies.

Of that total flutter, $113.5 billion, 71 per cent, was fed into gaming machines outside the casinos. More than half of that gaming machine turnover was in NSW, a state that managed an astonishing adult per capita gambling habit of $11,773. Victoria was second among the states with $9956 bet per adult.

One of the problems with examining the gambling industry is that the full data is not timely. The most recent available - the 821-page Australian Gambling Statistics - was released in December but only covers up to 2009-10. It is the work of the Queensland government Statistician, at the behest of the national Racing and Gaming Ministers' Conference.

The figures confirm that sports betting is our fastest-growing channel for losing money. Indeed, it was the only form of gambling to record meaningful growth in 2009-10. Sports betting turnover was up 19.6 per cent from the previous year and sports betting expenditure - what the punters lost out of their total flutter - soared 37 per cent to $303.5 million.

Total gambling turnover in 2009-10 fell by 3.1 per cent, with pokies down 2.3 per cent and their expenditure figures both eased 0.5 per cent to $18.46 billion and $10.2 billion respectively.

With sports betting recording such eye-catching growth and gaming machines actually slipping, it's no wonder the pokie overlords - the pubs and clubs industry - joined in the Waterhouse bashing.

Australians don't need Tom Waterhouse to tell them that when they turn 18 the pubs and clubs they enter will have gaming machines waiting for their money. The attempt by Andrew Wilkie to force the government into some reform of the industry effectively came to nothing. Much stronger forces were working to keep politicians in their place - the back pocket.

If your sense of humour is dark enough, it is hilarious that the O'Farrell government in NSW wants to go further than Julia Gillard in cracking down on sports gambling advertising when it has liberalised the takings and opportunities for its supporters in the pubs and clubs, never mind wanting to give James Packer a casino licence without a tender. But self-interest should never be doubted.

NSW government revenue from gaming machines and keno in 2009-10 was $1.1 billion. The Sydney casino contributed $91.4 million. NSW government revenue from sports gambling was too small to get on the chart.

No wonder Tom didn't seem to have any friends. Oh, there have been a couple of football businesses that saw their own payoff being lessened. These businesses - the mobs who run professional sport - are behaving true to form. They very happily took Big Tobacco's money until governments dragged them kicking and screaming off the habit. The welfare of the kiddies has never been their prime concern either.

Michael Pascoe is a BusinessDay contributing editor.

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