Gambling is changing why we watch the AFL grand final and other sporting events

Rev Tim Costello

22 Sept 2022

As we approach the AFL Grand Final and the completion of another season we often ask - how is the health of the game?

The Hawthorn racism scandal has exploded into the media at the very time the league celebrates its season's zenith. It is too early to tell what these revelations will mean for other teams and the wider league.

Prior to this scandal it would appear that the game was in rude health.

The exciting footy that has been played this final series, the high scoring, the large crowds, the close games and even the odd upset or two - has commentators and fans glowing.

In terms of the balance sheet, that would appear to be pretty healthy too with the AFL just inking a record $4.5 billion, seven-year broadcast deal with Channel Seven and Foxtel.

The deal is to be one of the final acts of AFL boss Gillion McLachlan and had many crowing that it was to be his crowning glory.

Those who know me know that I am a passionate, life-long Essendon supporter. I love our great game and have spent many cold winter afternoons at the footy. For many supporters across the country - it is simply a way of life.

But I believe there is an ugly underbelly to the modern game. One that has fundamentally changed the way a whole generation view the sport.

I am a vocal critic of sports gambling. And this cause had me camped outside the MCG one cold afternoon asking young people why they were coming to the game.

We were targeting Millennials. The next generation of supporters upon which the future of the game depends.

And what we discovered shocked me profoundly. Young people spoke not of coming to the game to support their team, but rather to see if their "multi" paid out for them and their mates.

There was less interest in their team winning and more focus on the odds and on the exotic bets such as who kicked the first goal.

It dawned on me that the proliferation of sports gambling had fundamentally changed the way a whole generation viewed our great game.

Perhaps it is not too surprising given that a young person of 13 years of age or younger has never seen a major sporting event on commercial TV that did not include endless advertisements detailing the odds.

So is the AFL an innocent victim of the sports gambling juggernaut that has engulfed Australia?

The AFL is by far an innocent bystander. It is cashing in on the advertising dollars - both directly and indirectly - and in so doing changing the very nature of the game as we have known it for more than 100 years

Firstly the AFL's broadcast rights deal would never have been so lucrative if it was not for the tacit understanding that broadcasters will cash in big on the near limitless advertising spots they can sell to sports gambling agencies.

Agencies that are foreign owned, registered in the Northern Territory and which pay a pitiful amount of tax in Australia.

But the AFL also gets into bed directly with these sports gambling agencies when it sells the rights to the highest bidder to become the official sports betting agency of the league.

In 2005, the AFL signed a 10-year deal with BetEasy to be its official sports wagering partner until the end of 2025. The deal was reportedly worth $10 million per year.

No doubt the Brownlow Medal and the grand final will be coming to us courtesy of a sports gambling agency in the coming years.

My fear is that the legacy of Gill's time as the chief of the AFL may not be viewed so positively. He may well be remembered as the leader who sold the soul of the sport.

Of course with such a lucrative TV deal, you would think the AFL may consider now curbing its links to gambling and the massive harm gambling does across our community.

Indeed, many clubs have recognised this harm and have moved to remove poker machines from their clubs.

But it is highly unlikely that the AFL will do anything other than continue to take the money.

There is so much in our national Indigenous sport that is great. There is so much to be celebrated.

Yet the continued links to sports gambling, the way gambling products actually change the way supporters view the game and the damage this will do to communities across the country for years to come - is a tragedy.

Something to ponder as we watch the "insert betting company name here" AFL Grand Final.


Tim Costello is chief advocate, Alliance for Gambling Reform.