The only real shock of the Australian Open sponsorship scandal is how entirely unsurprising it is.
The courtside controversy concerns gambling advertising being displayed in the tournament’s main arenas. It’s the culmination of a deal that made UK-based bookmaker William Hill the official ‘"gambling partner" of the Australian Open.
Wowsers beware. The gentleman’s sport is being dragged down to the level of boxing and horse racing! All at a time when match fixing at the elite end of the sport has been headline news.
A moral issue?
Responses to the partnership are divided. For some the formal involvement of a licensed bookmaker might protect tennis after the match-fixing debacle. A level playing field for all is in the interests of betting companies, it is argued.
For others the sponsorship is a form of commercial exploitation that has tarnished tennis. Once considered a genteel family game, tennis has become entrenched in the ever closer relationship between betting and professional sports.
Reactions to the controversy are playing out in moral terms. Is it “right” or “wrong” for the commercial self-interest of a bookmaker to be so fully entrenched in sporting culture and family entertainment?
Easy moral solutions are hard to find, not the least because ours is an era where corporations have infiltrated our lives in more and more pervasive ways.
To complain that a corporation is using sport (or anything else for that matter) to further its own business objectives seems a bit like shutting the stable door weeks after the horse has been stolen by your rich neighbour.
Like it or not, it is business-as-usual. It’s not just sport. Sponsorship covers entertainment, cultural activities, non-profit organisations, universities, and of course politics and politicians.
Corporations front up some cash, and in return expect commercial benefits.
While some people appear alarmed by commercial gambling’s intrusion into tennis, it would be naïve to be surprised by it.
Gambling, like alcohol and tobacco, is considered part of a “controversial industry sector”. Coupling this with tennis might upset some traditionalists, but this acts as a subterfuge for the larger context of the furore.
The real story is about the dominating role played by large profit-driven corporations in people’s daily existence.
Bill South, William Hill’s group director of security and community might claim that William Hill “are part of the solution to integrity issues, not part of the problem,” but that is not what they are in it for.
Success at all costs
When the tennis partnership was first announced, Australian CEO Tom Waterhouse declared that “William Hill and the Australian Open is the perfect match. Both brands are among the most respected, innovative and technologically advanced in the world”.
This was a business deal, done on business terms and for commercial purposes. For William Hill these terms are reflected in its self-avowed principal “value” of being “hungry for success”.
It handed over A$5 million to partner with the Australian Open. It seems to be paying off. On the first day of the tournament its hunger was satisfied with betting turnover increasing by 80%, and live in-play betting going up almost 300%.
Whatever it takes
Earlier this year William Hill came under the scrutiny of the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK for using children and teddy bears in its advertising campaigns. The ads were slammed on account of trying to appeal to children, including wagering on the sex of the British royal baby.
In Australia there has also been controversy over in-play betting. It is illegal in Australia to place online bets once an event has started. William Hill got around this by developing an app that uses voice technology, rendering it technically a telephone bet.
The legality of this has been contested. Its business sense has not.
The recent events in tennis are a sign of the times. This localised issue testifies to one of the most important moral and political issues of our time.
Shock is a response to things that are out of the ordinary. But there is nothing strange about what is happening in tennis.
The feigned incredulity to the tennis scandal promotes the false belief that the integration of corporations into our everyday lives is unusual. Worse, it enables the real extent and effect of that integration to go unnoticed and unfettered.
This is a fake controversy that masks the real scandal: the way that corporate domination of every dimension of human life has become entirely normal.