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Sporting codes’ deals with gambling companies force them into a Faustian bargain

Sports betting has become a high-profile part of the rugby league’s income and branding. Karl Monaghan, CC BY-NC-SA

Sporting codes’ deals with gambling companies force them into a Faustian bargain

Sports betting has become a high-profile part of the rugby league’s income and branding. Karl Monaghan, CC BY-NC-SA

In 2014-15, Australians gambled nearly A$7.2 billion on sports betting (not including racing), in the process losing around $815 million. Sports betting is certainly a growth market in Australia.

Most professional sporting codes have business partnerships with betting providers; the sponsorship revenue is attractive to them. However, there are risks for the organisations. Wagers about on-field results and variables during play have the potential to be a Faustian bargain. Known as “exotic bets”, these include markets like the first player to score a goal in football, or the first to score a try in rugby league.

The National Rugby League is arguably in a Faustian position right now. Wests Tigers player Tim Simona recently admitted to placing bets on rugby league – including against his own team and, most shockingly, that his direct opponent would score a try. The NRL has now deregistered Simona.

Gambling is not just a source of income for sports; it adds entertainment value for many fans. Betting can even bring in new supporters, enticed initially by a punt. However, should confidence in the betting market be compromised, such as by fraud or corruption, the integrity of sport as a legitimate contest is placed at grave risk.

Normalising gambling on sport

Rugby league used to rely almost solely on poker machines for gambling revenue. But recently, sports betting has become a high-profile part of the game’s income and branding.

Of the 16 NRL clubs, seven are sponsored by online sports betting companies; two more are sponsored by casinos, one of which is an online sports betting platform.

The Manly-Warringah club’s home ground has been renamed Lottoland as part of a sponsorship deal with that online betting company. And the NRL itself has a $60 million deal with Sportsbet – its official gaming partner – until 2020.

NRL fans – whether at the game or watching a broadcast – bear witness to an unprecedented volume of sports betting promotion: before the match, during game breaks, on player jerseys, ground signage, scoreboard displays, after the match and in highlight reels. NRL betting odds feature in newspapers and news bulletins, often with live crosses to a sports betting agency to discuss predictions and offer promotional bets.

Punters can place a bet – either prior to the game or in play – with a simple selection on a digital device. These apps are designed to be enticing – socially and psychologically.

So, gambling on the NRL is normalised – not just for adults who bet, but for children who observe.

Compromising the sport’s integrity

Gamblers’ confidence in betting on the NRL has occasionally been compromised from an integrity perspective.

In 2010, Canterbury player Ryan Tandy instigated a spot-fixing operation in which the opposing team would be gifted a penalty at the start of the game. The sting failed, but Tandy was found out – and banned from the NRL for life.

In 2016, a New South Wales police task force was established to investigate bank and betting anomalies related to suspected match-fixing in the NRL. That inquiry is ongoing.

Tim Simona’s admissions have reinforced long-held concerns about the threat to game integrity by players’ engagement with, and even addiction to, gambling (and related behaviours, such as illicit drugs).

It is difficult to see Simona ever returning to the NRL. His addictions to gambling and cocaine certainly require the assistance of health professionals, so there is some sympathy about his state of mind.

But Simona’s reputation has been compromised beyond that. It’s been revealed that he pocketed money on the sale of signed NRL jerseys auctioned for charity, and that he implored his pregnant ex-girlfriend to have an abortion – saying he “wouldn’t be there to support them”.

While Simona needs support – especially around risk of self-harm during a crisis – his lack of empathy for others suggests poor emotional intelligence.

What now?

Following the Simona scandal the NRL is trying to reduce its exposure to the integrity risks spot-fixing poses.

The number of in-play activities that punters can bet on has been reduced. For example, the option of placing a wager on the first scoring play of the first half has gone, and so too – one deduces – the temptation for someone like Simona to attempt a sting.

There is, inevitably, the prospect of match-fixing. But that is much more unlikely than a spot fix: it needs many people in the same team to be on side, and perhaps even a friendly referee. That is a much tougher Faustian bargain to pull off.