When I first moved to Australia, one of the first things that struck me was the obsession with betting on sports. Sports betting in the United States is condemned to winos and the 1950’s caricatures that inhabit the horse tracks or weekend trips to Vegas. But here it is a part of every day life, completely normalized.
Most American sports leagues do everything in their power to distance themselves from the bookmakers and the reasons are twofold. First and foremost, there have been so many scandals in American sports with athletes in the employ of the seedy underworld that a reputable organization would steer clear of any involvement for the sake of their own integrity (boxing, not having integrity, has never felt the need to save it). Secondly, in a phenomenon solely confined to my homeland within the first world, is the puritanical values we hold so dear. Gambling is a sin. Even though it doesn’t say so in the bible, God would be against it if He existed. Australia, without God’s reign of terror being brandished over its head at all times is free to sin away. And sin they do. Estimates for gambling losses via online sports betting are at $611 million dollars in Australia. This does not include gambling via mobile phone, at the track or TAB, or betting against your mate as to who kicks the first goal at your nephew’s under 12s. $611 million. That’s 87 minutes of Super Bowl advertising if you read my last piece!
Lack of moral compass is not the only thing to blame. Smart phones are also culpable. Not only do they cause people to walk into bike lanes, they cause them to gamble. Previously, one had to go to the TAB, a dank, smoke-filled, hideously carpeted room with a man in a green visor at the counter. Now, with a swipe and a click, money is missing without wasting petrol. It wasn’t always this way. Previously, gambling institutions could only advertise in the state they called home and most of them were confined to the Northern Territory (ACT has porn, NT gambling, it’s like international waters once you leave the states). A few years back, in a bold stroke for the cause of personal freedom, the courts paved the way for unlimited, uninhibited gambling ads to be shown throughout any sporting event and a golden age was born. One ad campaign even pokes fun at the old way of betting, using the previously mentioned TAB as the butt of the joke. Stadiums are being renamed: Penrith stadium in Sydney is now know as Centrebet Stadium. Teams across all leagues and codes are being sponsored by betting sites. My footy team, the St Kilda Saints, are among the main offenders.
One of the more odd developments in the few last years is in-game odds updates. While watching a match of any kind, if a big swing in momentum changes the probability of the outcome one way or the other, the commentators will give you an odds update. ‘After winning the first set, Nadal is now paying only $1.25 to win’ one might say. Or ‘at three-quarter time, Collingwood paying $1.80’ with graphics, bells and whistles. Even ex-athletes will come out and give the updates lending it the air importance and respectability within the context of the sport. One can bet on any number events, futures or possibilities. The first goal, who will win the championship, 5 team parlays are all at arms length. According to a march 2011 article on the subject 2319 sites will take bets. It’s easier than ever.
Purity of Sport or Puritanism in Sport
In the United States, things are completely different. So many sports scandals have rocked the sports world, since the beginning of sports leagues themselves. Some of the more famous scandals form a part of the American sporting psyche. The Black Sox scandal of 1919, in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox were banned from baseball for life after being accused of losing the World Series, despite being heavy favorites, for the benefit of the gambling underworld. The White Sox didn’t win a World Series until 2005 and many fans around the country labelled them as being cursed. Some baseball people still champion for the famous ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson be re-instated and, thus, enshrined in the hall of fame. The story has been immortalized in countless popular culture, the film ‘Field of Dreams’ being one of the more famous. Kevin Costner, in his best role since ‘Waterworld’ is told by a mysterious voice in a cornfield, ‘if you build it, they will come.’ Sure enough, after building a baseball diamond, the ghosts of the 8 blacklisted players show up to play. The same can be said for betting websites and Australians.
Other scandals have also had long lasting effects. Pete Rose, baseball’s all-time leader in hits, is also banned for life from baseball. This means no hall of fame, no participation in any events, no going to games. He was banned, not for fixing games or aiding the gambling world in any way, shape or form. He was banned for betting on baseball while being a manager. He even bet on his own team’s games, breaking the sports cardinal rule.
“I bet on my team every night. I didn’t bet on my team four nights a week. I bet on my team to win every night because I loved my team, I believed in my team.”
A more recent scandal that brought in to question the integrity of the NBA was the 2007 referee point-shaving scandal. Tim Donaghy was convicted to 15 months in prison for fixing the outcomes of numerous games to help some underworld figures he had a sizable gambling debt to. Point shaving occurs when favorites are listed by a point spread, the Lakers 12 point favorites to win, for example. A player or official can then try to make sure that the final score falls on one side of that imaginary line or the other without effecting the outcome of the game. This is a common method because most involved won’t care if the Lakers win by 11 or 13 as long as they win and the ruse can effectively fly in under the radar. There is also suspicion that this is a common occurrence in college games as the players, being amateurs are unpaid, despite bringing in millions of dollars in profits for their universities. The NBA has been toying with the idea of locating a franchise in Las Vegas. On the surface, it makes sense, as it is the largest city in the country not to have a team in one of the four main professional leagues. But the reality is that league is reluctant because it doesn’t want to show any outward signs or connections with the gambling world. The NFL and Major League Baseball have already given the idea a resounding ‘No’.
It’s still difficult to determine what effect all this gambling has on the world around me. I hear people at work talk about their bets on a daily basis. Of the $611 million in mentioned losses, the majority may just be eccentric millionaires, or problem gamblers that I would most likely never cross paths with. I once overheard, while working as a fruit monger in the markets, that an old man who owns a stall next to us bet $50,000 on the previous nights game, and LOST! I have a friend who bets a lot. I once asked him how much he loses every year on sports betting. He seemed a bit offended by my wording and after deliberate consideration he replied,
“I don’t know, I only count the winnings.”