Edition #4: Gambling harm

Two young guys on outside seating in a sports stadium, one watching game and the other looking at his mobile phone.
Two young guys on outside seating in a sports stadium, one watching game and the other looking at his mobile phone.
Photo: iStock

Live betting – a better way to watch sport?

Anyone who watches sport will be all too familiar with the phenomenon of sports betting. Over the past decade it has grown rapidly in visibility and participation.

This growth is not surprising given all the ads across television and radio, at sports venues and even in public transport on the way to grounds. By the end of August last year, the gambling industry had spent A$149 million on advertising, up A$44.5 million from the same time the previous year.

While participation in sports betting is comparatively low compared to pokies, it is still up 29 per cent since 2008, and young males bet on sport more than any other group.  

A new spin on watching the game with your mates

Sports betting promotion targets young men and suggests that part of watching sport is betting on sport.

Rather than invest your emotions in the success of your athlete or team, invest your money on an outcome: Who will win and by how much? Maybe even show your devotion by betting on your team, even if they are long odds. And why not compare results with your mates:  Who's ahead? Who went for it? Who will win or lose next?

Into all of this in the last twelve months has come 'live betting'. Live betting is your chance to bet while the event is on, not only on who will win but lots of other things besides. Who will be in front at half-time? Will the tennis match be 6–4 6–3 or will it go three sets?

Rather than invest your emotions in the success of your athlete or team, invest your money on an outcome.

Live betting has always been legal under the Commonwealth Interactive Gambling Act, but only if you do it with a phone call to your bookmaker or face to face across the counter. Betting live online is not allowed – but this may change.

The phantom bookie

The potential game changer is a challenge to the law by corporate bookmakers William Hill, Ladbrokes and Bet365.

In 2015 they came up with new apps for smartphones and tablets that simulated a phone call as part of placing a bet. You didn't need to speak and there was no-one to hear or answer. Rather, the mic on the phone was activated while you pressed or swiped to make the bet.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority took a dim view of the legality of these apps and Ladbrokes and Bet365 retired theirs while awaiting legal clarity. William Hill claimed legal opinion in their favour and their heavily promoted app is currently out there taking bets.

Two people in front of television showing tennis match in progress and both are holding mobile phones in front of them.Photo: iStock

How hungry are we for a live bet?

Last year the Australian government instituted a review into the impact of illegal offshore wagering. The question of live betting, in Australia and offshore, emerged as a major issue.

The corporate bookmakers, who had long argued that online live betting should be allowed, submitted to the review that offshore illegal bookmakers were unfairly stealing their customers.

The foundation also made a submission to the review, questioning the bookmakers' claims that large numbers of customers wanted live betting and were betting overseas, and contemplating the harm online live betting may cause if legalised.

There is little evidence of Australians' widespread demand for, and participation in, live betting offshore.

Most of the scanty evidence around offshore illegal betting is based on non-transparent and non-independent research, and probably exaggerated. The foundation drew on the best independent and academic research available and also did a brief analysis of offshore sites. It found little evidence of Australians' widespread demand for, and participation in, live betting offshore. So an argument to legalise online live betting based on demand should be a non-starter.

The new pokies?

The foundation is concerned that live betting online would become popular if it was legalised. The industry would devote large sums of money to promoting it – as it has done very profitably in the UK.

The more important question from the foundation's viewpoint is whether online live betting would increase the risk of harm. This is a new technology and a new phenomenon, so there is little established research on it. However, research on similar types of gambling raises a number of red flags.

Continuous betting, where the betting can be frequent and the time taken to resolve a bet is short, has strong associations with harmful forms of gambling. Poker machines are a classic example.

Who will be in front at half-time? Will the tennis match be 6–4 6–3 or will it go three sets?

Online live betting apps offer a continuous stream of opportunities to bet, all during the emotional arousal of watching a game. Add a competitive, peer-driven environment, mates egging one another on, potentially some alcohol, and on the face of it you certainly have a very risky form of gambling. Impulsivity is enabled and rational contemplation and reflection are likely truncated. These factors considered, online live betting has huge potential to undermine responsible gambling.

To be continued … or not

Given the potential for harm, the foundation advised that the government not allow online live betting and even consider outlawing live betting altogether, in any form.

The review reported to the federal government near the end of 2015 and the published report and the government's response to it are expected sometime this year.

In the meantime, William Hill heavily promoted its live betting app during the Australian Open and the app continues to be available.

Live betting online would be popular if it was legalised. The industry would devote large sums of money to promoting it.

Mid last year the Australian Communications and Media Authority asked the Australian Federal Police to look into the legality of what William Hill was doing. However, the police signalled it was not a priority. In January this year, the authority again requested that the police look into the legality of the app. The outcome of this second request is not known.

Download the foundation's submission:

Submission to the review of the impact of illegal offshore wagering (PDF - 846.7 KB)

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