AFL and the pokies
In the last 20 years the Australian Football League and its clubs have provided leadership on a range of important social issues, particularly in the areas of racism, respect for women and the use of illicit drugs. The AFL is regarded as an exemplar in affecting positive social change in the area of racial vilification and racism, both on and off the field, while its illicit drugs policy, albeit controversial, is unique in adopting an educational and non-punitive approach to a complex social problem.
Given this recent record of responsible intervention, are the AFL and its clubs ready to tackle other social problems with the same vigour? The results of the Victorian government’s recent gaming machine auction suggest that in terms of gaming and gambling the answer is a resounding ‘no’.
The ‘Gaming Machine Entitlement Outcomes’ announced on May 20 reveal that 9 of the 10 Victorian based AFL clubs have purchased gaming (poker) machine licenses that will run for 10 years from 2012: in the auction Carlton secured 260 machines; Collingwood 191; Essendon 190; Geelong 182; Western Bulldogs 95; Melbourne 92; St Kilda 83; Hawthorn 75; and Richmond 70. Many of these machines are located in areas of Melbourne and Victoria in which the residents experience significant socio-economic disadvantage.
Although the professionalism and scope of the AFL often suggests otherwise, the League and its clubs operate on a non-profit basis. They are not private entities that return a profit to an owner or shareholders. Rather, all the money that is earned by the clubs is also expended by the clubs. The amount that a club can spend on players is limited by the salary cap at $7,950,000, yet the amount that can be spent in other areas of the football department (coaches, medical and rehabilitation staff, scouts, psychologists, etc) and administration is unlimited. Hence, in recent times commentators have talked about clubs either gaining or losing their competitive advantage because they spent more or less on the non-playing component of the football department. The intense competition for on-field success means clubs are looking for ways to supplement their traditional revenue streams of shared broadcast rights, gate receipts, membership and sponsorship.
Gaming machines provide the clubs with a substantial and reliable income stream, independent of competition from other Victorian clubs, unlike sponsorship or membership. It is understandable that the clubs have looked to expand their non-football related revenue sources, but it is highly questionable whether the acquisition of gaming machines is a socially responsible way to gain a competitive advantage. Should AFL clubs be using the profits from gaming machines to hire more coaches, more scouts and more psychologists for players who are already very well paid and very well resourced? Gaming machines are legal and the profits they deliver to clubs are likely to allow more outreach and development programs than would be possible otherwise, but it is unlikely these positives outweigh the negatives.
Problem gambling is a broader social problem, not confined to football, but it doesn’t yet threaten football’s image, reputation and brand in ways that other issues such as racism, the treatment of women and the use of illicit drugs have. The AFL and its clubs do not appear to be at the point at which they are prepared to be proactive in addressing gambling as a social issue. It is not enough to advocate for and support prominent players afflicted by problem gambling – they must support members of the broader community as well. This issue of problem gambling is all the more prescient given the recent legalisation of advertising for sport betting products and providers, now prominent during football broadcasts. The AFL and its clubs should re-think their policy position in relation to poker machines and assess whether their financial gains outweigh their potential to contribute to an important social issue.
Dr Matthew Nicholson