Illustration: Steven Moore
You can get it sitting on the beach, down at the pub or in the lounge room. Wherever you find yourself, it’s on tap: a constant part of your life.
This captures where we might be heading as the big changes in gambling over the past decade – easy digital access to all types of betting and wall-to-wall advertising – begin to alter how many of us experience sport.
Old-style gambling, whether at the races, down at the TAB or at the local pokies venue, looks very different from where new-style sports betting is taking us. Gambling old-style is largely about taking some time out to gamble, often in a specific gambling location.
When asked about who may be in trouble with old-style gambling, you might look to loners, people gambling to escape other problems, or those whose punting is rapidly depleting their social life and financial resources.
The latter is still true as an end point for people in severe trouble, but with sports betting, it may be reached via a different route. You take your betting with you and integrate it into how you follow all types of sports, including as a social activity. You don't take time out to gamble, gambling is always with you.
Where new-style sports betting is taking us
We are still less than one generation into this new gambling environment, but researchers are already beginning to report concerning findings.
In a foundation-funded study led by Associate Professor Samantha Thomas from Deakin University, researchers found that children aged between 8 and 16 and interested in sport were easily able to link gambling brands with sporting codes and teams. Their analysis led to the conclusion that the association of sport with gambling was well on the way to being normalised among such children. Read more from the researchers on why doing nothing about sports betting marketing is taking a gamble with our kids.
Another study led by Emily Deans, also from Deakin University, delved into the sports betting consumption patterns of young men aged 20 to 37. Respondents clearly identified wider and easier access, advertising and a greater range of products as encouraging more integration of betting into their lives.
You don't take time out to gamble, gambling is always with you.
They noted that betting had evolved from a specific activity – travelling to a TAB to place a bet – to one that could take place anywhere, anytime, and while doing something else. One interviewee said, ‘I can sit on the beach and punt through my mobile phone … or use my lunch break at my job to punt on my laptop.’
The new environment offers a wider variety of sports on which to bet, including sports not previously available, such as European handball. Another significant factor for young men is the role peer pressure or peer bonding plays in making bets. Betting while drinking and watching sport is also a potent feature of new-style gambling.
‘I can sit on the beach and punt through my mobile phone … or use my lunch break at my job to punt on my laptop.’
Even gambling in venues, traditionally old-style, is changing. Whereas once you would have to enter the gaming area of a venue to place a bet, a mobile app now lets you do it from the lounge area, while a mate is up ordering the jug. The venue is effectively a place where drinking, gambling, watching sport and socialising are now seamless.
Another key factor in this new environment is the effectiveness of inducements. Respondents to the study noted they have multiple accounts with different bookmakers in order to take advantage of special offers.
The foundation website has more information about this study into the influence of physical and online environments on wagering behaviour.
Identity, reflection and control in the new environment
Altogether, these changes create ‘risk-promoting settings’, according to the researchers. These settings are not just about individuals falling into problem gambling patterns, but also continuous streams of small and medium-level harms accruing to gamblers not able to keep control in the new environment.
This is a major challenge for those wishing to reduce harm from gambling, whether through educating users or regulating to reduce the risk generated by products or their promotion. Old-style exhortations to gamblers to ‘stay in control’ must be adapted to deal with new risk-promoting environments that push them to lose control.
Continuous streams of small and medium-level harms accrue to gamblers not able to keep control in this environment.
The link between gambling and the sociability of sport is explored in another recent piece of research led by Emily Deans. In investigating the role of peer influences on the normalisation of sports wagering, the researchers looked at how advertising is linking consumption of gambling products with symbols recognised and valued by Australians.
In particular, they analyse in depth how gambling brands are associated with the celebration of sport and being a desirable person or having a desirable lifestyle. People are encouraged to make betting a part of their identity, like being a Carlton or Doggies supporter is part of one's identity. When something is a part of your identity you do not reflect much on what you are doing, rather, you just do it. Indeed, doing it affirms who you are. This is not a wise approach to gambling.
Gambling brands are associated with the celebration of sport and being a desirable person or having a desirable lifestyle.
From the point of view of gambling harm, the concern is that advertising may be devaluing risk on one hand, and elevating risk-taking on the other. When gambling becomes so integrated into your life that it no longer requires specific choices, then reflecting on, and controlling, gambling becomes a more complex problem.
Online gambling and its promotion continues to present major challenges in harm prevention. Given they are changing the gambling environment and the experience of sport, they raise questions for the whole community. As they are producing risk-promoting settings, more help in the shape of education and regulation will be needed to allow those affected by the new environment to regain balance and control.