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Analysis

In cyberspace, no-one can stop gambling ads

Analysis

MOST of us know a bloke or two who like to punt. You know the kind: they’ll be watching the footy on TV with an iPad or iPhone on the couch next to them.

They’ll keep one eye on the TV and the other on the ever-changing market of phantasmagorical bets on their mobile device.

Forget the TV ads featuring Tom Waterhouse or Jamie Rogers – they’re much more plugged into the world of gambling than that. They see a bet they like – they jump on it.

Television watching doesn’t happen in isolation any more – for a generation, or maybe more, it’s always partnered by a smartphone or tablet.

The punters don’t just bet with the aid of their smartphones – they barrack on Twitter, and keep track of their Dream Team in real time.

It’s a trend that isn’t constrained to sports and betting. Channel 10’s drama show Offspring has an app, and is the subject of much Twitter chatter – including when it’s being broadcast. Judging by the Twitter traffic, no-one watches Q&A without Tweeting.

Free-to-air and pay television stations no longer monopolise our attention, even on those increasingly rare occasions when they monopolise content.

Those pesky internet whizz-kids have a way of getting their hooks into every profitable area once dominated by all-powerful networks.

Betting is just one of these areas – and it looks like the online providers are about to win another commercial advantage over the television networks.

Most people believe it’s a creditable idea to ban live odds advertising from broadcasts of sport. Tom and Jamie are relentless. Just let us watch the game!

But behind this debate are two factors which have the potential to make the ad ban simply an interesting historical footnote to a much bigger juggernaut.

First, online betting seems likely to continue to boom, even though it has really barely begun. A 2012 economic analysis commissioned by Sportsbet estimated that betting on the AFL and NRL would double over five years to $3.3 billion, driven by growth in online sports gambling.

Second, the long-discussed “convergence” of technologies is gathering pace. Television stations themselves are broadcasting more and more content online. More concerning for them, a whole generation is gaining more and more of its ‘television’ diet from the internet – downloaded both legally and illegally. Internet-enabled TVs are helping to blur the lines.

While Weatherill’s proposed ban should successfully separate the advertising of live odds from the television broadcast of a game, the online environment is very different.

Go to the official AFL website and click on ‘Fixtures and results’ – this will offer you a menu, including ‘Match Odds’. This takes you to a page displaying TAB.com.au markets for the upcoming round, previews of games, and links to ‘BET NOW’ or ‘OPEN A TAB ACCOUNT’.

Open the official AFL app on your iPhone and you’ll likely as not find an ad for a betting company (this morning, the “match centre” included an ad for Sportingbet – a company which came out yesterday in support of a ban on live odds betting on TV).

On the AFL app you can subscribe to watch live games on your mobile device – in an environment where the combination of exhortations to gamble, as Weatherill put it this week, and sporting content won’t be touched by the South Australian regulations.

As TAB.com.au says on its website: “…while going to your local TAB gives you access to live coverage, helpful staff and that classic atmosphere, you can’t beat online betting for sheer convenience”.

To make it perfectly clear, TAB says: “Online betting never closes. This means live betting odds are open to you twenty four hours, seven days a week. By betting online, you no longer have to worry about rushing to your local TAB before it closes.”

For commercial interests, this is a beautifully integrated scenario.

With one or two taps of the finger you’re able to see the odds on the game you’re watching on the same device you can then use to place your bet, at the moment by making an old-fashioned phone call (although in-game, online betting seems an inevitability) . Seamless. It makes any TV ad strategy look positively clunky.

That’s not to say that online betting is completely uncontrolled.

Local companies can’t offer online ‘gaming’ – virtual casinos, and the like. While online wagering on racing and sports events are allowed, there are some restrictions on what can and can’t happen.

Some gambling regulators argue that online betting has advantages over in-venue gambling on pokie machines, for example. The argument goes that instead of anonymously pushing dollar after dollar into a machine, the online punter must establish an account, can track their spending, and should have the option to set a pre-commitment level.

Of course, Australian legislation is difficult, if not impossible, to apply to websites hosted in other countries.

The whole issue is exceedingly complicated.

Weatherill’s plans won’t and can’t control the online environment.

This doesn’t mean it won’t be a relief to be able to watch a game of footy without noxious gambling ads coming at us every few minutes. It will – and voters will likely thank Weatherill for it (it was a clever bit of politics to get out ahead on this issue, even if an early morning interview caused some momentary confusion about his intentions).

But perhaps the bigger problem is still ahead of us – a fully integrated world where governments struggle to impose meaningful protections for the vulnerable, and the addicted punter can sit on his or her own couch, watch their favourite footy team and leak dollars with every tap, tap, tap.

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