Method In His Madness

With the Waterhouses’ battles at Randwick now drawing to a close – Gai still has one issue to discuss with the stewards – it’s timely to put some things into perspective.

Widespread community objections to Channel 9’s overexposure of Smiling Tom involved two prime factors: the advertising of gambling to kids and the risk of a stimulus for problem gambling.

It’s hard to think of any reason why the first point should not get maximum attention. So far, it has been weakly handled by governments. The ads are to be cut back but will still be present during daylight hours. They will not impact on actual playing times but will still be seen by youngsters during breaks. Not tough enough, in my view, when they occur during general sporting programs.

The second point is largely nonsense and I will explain why shortly.

There are some related but less vital issues. Smiling Tom’s marketing strategy is technically faulty on two grounds at least. Like the vicar at the church fete, a constant grinning personage soon becomes annoying and he does it 100% of the time. It lacks sincerity. Equally, the frequency of the ads is so high it will produce the same reaction – and has done so, according to several letters to the editor.

They also divert attention from the message he wants to get across. (And, contrary to some opinions, the girl with the hacksaw voice on Tabcorp’s ads annoys me even more, although I can’t understand half the stuff she spruiks, but I hear that 20 year-olds might).

Whether Smiling Tom will ever see a return on his investment is unknown. Certainly, some of his competitors in the industry don’t think so, although they have not been shy in putting their names forward elsewhere. However, that’s his problem.

The other annoying factor is a barrage of objections to any such advertising or, in fact, to any sports betting, notably from Peter Fitzsimons of the Sydney Morning Herald. He has outstayed his welcome, too. The majority of Australians do not mind an occasional bet so will find Fitzy’s rants boring (I ignore the results of his alleged surveys – such things can easily be skewed). Indeed, betting cards were being flogged around football grounds long before TV arrived. And what about chook raffles at Fitzy’s rugby union clubs?

But back to the hard figures, so far as they can be established. That’s not an easy task because they are often conflicting, as are the results of various surveys and research. Misinterpretation is also a hassle – as, for example, by Michael Pascoe (Business Day, SMH) who claimed that the average adult in NSW had an “astonishing … gambling habit” to the tune of $11,778, with Victorians at $9,956. Pascoe means the total amount bet per year but to use such a figure is misleading and it is not astonishing at all.

Massive amounts go into that mix from big time punters (and bookies betting back) and, individually, not a lot from Mystery bettors, recreational weekend punters or casual gamblers in the pub. The actual losses are under $1,000 per person in both states – again, on average.

Even using that figure, many folk would consider $20 a week not as a loss, but as the cost of a bit of fun, just like going to the movies, or paying an entry fee to the football ground, neither of which will give you your money back if you guess right.

Betting figures for 2011/12 are the latest available and come from sources like the Australian Racing Board and the Australian Gaming Council. Both the commonwealth statistician and the Queensland Treasury produce official figures but they are two or three years out of date and not always meaningful in such a fast moving field.

The AGC reckons that total gambling amounted to $161.2 billion, of which $21.8 billion or 13.5% was on racing and sports. However, the ARB’s figure for racing and sports is $23.6 billion, which itself is understated because it does not include Betfair turnover (Betfair refuses to contribute figures). The ARB’s breakdown was:

Code $b % Trend
Thoroughbreds 14.4 60.9 Falling
Harness 2.3 9.7 Falling
Greyhounds 3.7 15.8 Rising
Sports 3.2 13.6 Rising
Totals 23.6 100

Either way, sports betting accounts for just under 2% of all gambling.

Take that a step further. Data on problem gamblers is also variable but it is generally considered that 70% to 80% of those affected are poker machine players. That means no more than about 25% of all problem gambling would involve racing and sports, but probably less. Therefore, sports betting alone might be responsible for perhaps 3.4% of all problem gamblers, assuming the problem was spread evenly, which is unlikely. At a guess, the real figure might be much less than half of that.

Consequently, the lobby complaining about Smiling Tom’s impact on problem gambling is addressing a tiny number at best.

None of this is to lessen the need for regulatory controls over abuses or criminal influences. As someone once said, crooks have been around since Jesus played fullback for Jerusalem. And every human activity is subject to abuses to one degree or another.

The point is that we do not need a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Responsible gambling should include responsible regulation as well. Additionally, resources would be better directed to two other areas: educating more high school seniors in maths and statistics and educating young males in the 18-35 years age group who are more inclined than others to have a punt or to get into strife doing it, so the surveys tell us. Even those who can handle their cash would benefit from that effort.

As for Smiling Tom, I doubt he is too fussed about the volume of sports business he does and, due to his huge investment in advertising, he will almost certainly lose heavily on the deal. More likely, it’s the other 98% that interests him. That’s where the real money is and that’s why he places a high value on getting his name in front of the public, especially the big betting members of the public. Anyway, compared to racing, football pictures and audiences are a lot more accessible to a lot more people.

Finally, while on the advertising subject, it is disappointing to see so many raceclubs – in all three codes – accept all the dollars to change the name of their track. Sponsoring races is fine but the track name is the only brand they have, so why give it away? What will they do when the sponsor gets sick of it or goes broke?