Game Three will be a corker. After two nail-biters, televisions will be blaring and bright right up and down the eastern seaboard tomorrow night as families tune in to watch the decider in Brisbane.
I’ve decided to give it a miss. I’m fed-up with the State of Origin. Every year that I sit down to watch it I feel like I’m being force-fed a tsunami of sponsorship and promotional paraphernalia just for the privilege of some football. Holden-sponsored goal post protectors, the Bundaberg Rum game analyser, the Harvey Norman replay, beer sponsorship everywhere. Rugby League has sold out.
But the creepiest of all is the abundance of online betting and casino marketing. Rugby League has been hijacked by the gambling industry with State of Origin its Trojan Horse. This once-great spectacle has been corrupted.
Part of the family wallpaper
From the age of six, Dad would take me down to Leichhardt Oval to see the Tigers play. I fell in love with the game from the moment that I met it. Before too long, I knew all of the players. There was Roachy, Wayne Pearce, Gary Jack and cheeky Benny Elias. I learnt their numbers and followed them around the pitch like a hawk.
But the Tigers were Dad’s team. Growing up on the north side, my best mate and I soon discovered the North Sydney Bears. Almost overnight, everything in my bedroom turned to black and to red.
If we weren’t jumping the back fence at North Sydney oval, we were begging our Dads to drive us all over Sydney to see the Bears play. We howled with the crowd when Billy Moore hit it up. We all knew Florimo was a danger man. Darryl Halligan was the best kicker in the game and quiet Gary Larson was the workhorse.
And when we weren’t at the games, we were memorising the players stats on the back of footy cards. We had posters of them pinned all over our walls and fought over their names when we played touch footy at the park. We looked up to them and we wanted to be them. They were our heroes.
Normalisation of gambling
The gambling industry understands how impressionable kids can be. It exploits this rock star appeal of Rugby League players for its own gain. The cunning association of top players with casinos and online betting drives a normalisation of gambling amongst children. After all, these malleable youngsters are the industry’s future customers. Gambling promotion during the State of Origin is an investment.
Sports gambling advertising is the fastest growing in Australia. According to Adnews, “Gambling adspend trumps pharmaceuticals, booze, real estate and cosmetics. At the current rate of growth, gambling could overtake banking, government and auto dealers within a year or so”. Online betting adspend has more than tripled since 2011.
However it’s the underhanded promotional tricks that are the most sinister.
Kids love gimmicky stuff and will wear anything that makes them feel part of the ‘tribe’. At Game Two a few weeks back in Sydney, the casino handed out free, bright blue supporter wigs with its name emblazoned across them.
The Star casino has also negotiated its black logo right across the back of the players’ jerseys – dominating the player’s name and his number. The casino’s name and logo is everywhere you turn at State of Origin.
In fact, the Star casino now refers to itself as “The Official Home of the NSW VB Blues”. Hosting such a popular team has provided invaluable publicity. When asked about the decision to stay at the casino, Blues coach Laurie Daley replied: “The players are really good, decent people and they’re preparing for a game of football…The Star is a great facility and we’ll have the best preparation”. The message sent to kids is blatant.
Statistics and spin
Last year, Australians lost $23 billion on gambling. That is equivalent to approximately $995 for every single Australian. We are the biggest gambling losers in the world by a long way. The Australian Financial Review believes that we have around half a million problem gamblers who each lose on average $16,000 per year. It is also estimated that around 400 Aussies every year commit suicide because of gambling-related issues. The social cost of gambling is estimated at around $4.7 billion a year for the Australian taxpayer. Nobody but the gambling industry is winning from this shambles.
Government research has identified that kids as young as six can “can identify different gambling companies’ brands and advertisement plotlines”. Children can recall a number of sports betting brands as well as the storylines of ads without prompting, particularly ads that are humorous.
And young boys become young men within the blink of an eye. The 18-25 year old male target audience is one of the most profitable for gambling businesses. By harnessing the power of peer pressure in its marketing, young Aussies are increasingly being told that gambling and sport go naturally hand-in-hand. We’re ‘educated’ that it’s normal and cool to have a ‘flutter’ with your mates.
Meanwhile, the NRL trumpets with fanfare just how much it gives back to the community. It tells its fan base that it ‘nurtures’ the grassroots of its sport.
It has an entire website dedicated to development of the up-and-comers. When launching a new kids’ league last year, the NRL stated that “Parents want to see their kids having fun and enjoying their rugby league in a safe and friendly environment”. When announcing further grassroots funding in 2015, the NRL stated that “At its heart, Rugby League is a community game, so it’s only fair we invest back in our community”.
Unfortunately, when you take a closer look at the way the NRL actually walks – it is a long way away from all the polish of its talk. This is an institution that doesn’t just protect its gambling partners – it fights for them.
Fighting to Maintain the Gamble
Finally sitting up and taking notice, after much pressure from the Nick Xenophon party, Malcolm Turnbull announced recently that his government would be developing new laws that ban any gambling advertising before 8.30pm.
If these laws get passed they would be a much welcomed first step. However, sporting events like State of Origin often start after 8pm. The laws would also not hinder the publicity stunts or promotional gimmicks of the industry and we’d continue to see players covered in its branding.
Of course, upon announcement of the proposed laws the NRL remained entirely consistent.
Rather than protect the ‘safe and friendly environment’ of their impressionable young fan base, it immediately stated that it would fight the laws to protect gambling industry financiers. With half of the NRL’s 16 teams having a gambling business as a major sponsor and Sportsbet’s annual $60 million sponsorship, it’s plain to see what side their bread is buttered on.
Rugby League has often wrestled with cultural values but has always managed to inspire young kids. It is a game that was once about the football itself, the heroes that played it and the families that showed up week in week out – to barrack them along. But Rugby League has lost its way.
It appears to have been corrupted by a gambling industry that chews up and spits out upcoming generations. Any sport that places the importance of gambling over kids is not a sport that I can pretend to watch and enjoy anymore. After all, as we’ve been taught for years – you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is.