It often pays to be sceptical of the AFL’s social responsibility epiphany | Craig Little

Craig Little
The state government-backed sponsorships to clubs like Carlton on the basis they eschew sports betting money does little to help make sense of the AFL’s commercial deals. Photograph: Michael Dodge/Getty Images

The AFL, NRL and Cricket Australia, all competing for the next generation of “consumers”, could do worse than look to the example set by sports betting companies.

According to a study published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health more than 90% of children can recall having seen an advertisement for sports betting. Three-quarters of them think that gambling is a normal or common part of sport – mainly because of the advertising they see for these products. That’s some reach.

Another study revealed that about three–quarters of children aged 8-16 can recall the name of least one sports betting brand, and one in three of these children can recall four brands or more. More than this, many children have a very detailed recall of the content of betting advertisements – not only brand names, but also plot lines (usually a variation on the all men are idiots theme) and ‘deals’ (one eight-year-old girl understands that “if you lose by eight points you get your money back”… which is great news if she’s a North Melbourne supporter).

This is incredible brand recall. To quote a 15-year-old boy from one of the studies, “They make it look positive and fun.” Perhaps it’s all the shouting? Perhaps Brian Taylor is onto something after all?

According to the AFL’s annual report, a large part of the AFL’s corporate social responsibility strategy is a commitment to “taking on real issues that matter to our game and that promote social cohesion”.

Gambling is an issue that matters to the game. So much so it has a multi-million-dollar-a-year deal with CrownBet, its “official gaming partner”. Another online betting company, SportsBet, advertises heavily during telecasts of the AFL, subsidising the $2.5bn Channel Seven, Foxtel and Telstra paid for the AFL television rights.

And again, gambling sets an example for sporting codes to follow in “social cohesion” and bringing people together. According to the Australian Medical Association, up to five million Australians feel the health, social and financial impacts of problem gambling, including friends, families and employers of people with a gambling problem.

Yet despite this, it took just two weeks of “intense lobbying” from the AFL to dilute the federal government’s plans to ban gambling ads during live sports telecasts. For an organisation that doesn’t pay tax, that’s some sort of lobbying muscle.

If harmful gambling wasn’t such a significant public health issue that has caused so much pain to so many families, and were gambling advertising not, to borrow the words of Bulldogs’ premiership captain Easton Wood, so “out of control”, it would be hilarious – or at the very least, another reminder why it pays to be sceptical of the AFL’s social responsibility epiphany and see it as PR puffery that fades under the glare of the league’s business case.

It also dismisses out of hand any moral authority the competition’s governing body may claim in dealing with what is an important social issue. This includes a planned move to implement a reasonable gambling policy that will address clubs’ heavy reliance on poker machine revenue, with a view to ultimately eradicate them from the game. Although anyone looking for a detailed plan or even a deadline would likely need the patience of a Carlton supporter.

Moral authority is also the sand that the Carlton Football Club is grasping at, having last year heavily promoted their partnership with the Victorian Responsible Gaming Foundation. Carlton is one of nine Victorian AFL clubs that now receive the state government-backed sponsorships on the basis they eschew sports betting money.

At the time of the announcement, Carlton CEO, Steven Trigg, wrote to members: “It’s about leadership in responsible gambling and furthering our work in the community – particularly with young people and their understanding of the risks associated with gambling.”

It was a statement that did little to help make sense of the AFL’s commercial arrangements, and one that failed to mention the $17m lost at Carlton’s four pokies venues the previous year.

Still, these are early days in Carlton’s cultural reinvention, and we were reminded just how early on Friday night when a Carlton team featuring 10 players under the age of 21 had their doors blown off by Port Adelaide. The Blues failed to score in the third-quarter, and the club may be considering commissioning three more seasons of their documentary, The Journey.

Meanwhile the AFL’s journey into “taking on real issues that matter” continues with Richmond and Melbourne at the MCG on Monday night. Richmond remains confident Dustin Martin will overcome a groin injury to play, and Demons defender Jayden Hunt must overcome an AFL edict that will prevent him from wearing a multi-coloured headband.

The AFL may be weak on gambling, but it is imperious on headbands. Hunt is predictably bemused by the heavy-handed order, saying he simply wanted to “bring a bit of flair back to the game like it used to have”. He said he hoped the AFL would one day change its current headband rules to “make the game more interesting”.

Perhaps it’s something the AFL can look at in the next draft of its CSR strategy? Although, had Hunt been paying attention to the news this week, he’d understand that making the game more interesting is not his role. That is the domain of sports betting companies. Just ask the kids.

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