How time flies. It seems like only yesterday, but in fact it’s been eight months since the AFL were dragged unwillingly into the ongoing debate over poker machines. In case you’ve forgotten, it was in September last year (just before the AFL grand final) that Clubs Australia announced that the AFL was joining them and the NRL in their campaign against poker machine reform.
We all know how that turned out, don’t we? Despite a national media storm reporting the announcement as “fact”, the AFL had made no such commitment… and a day or so later, AFL supremo Andrew Demetriou faced the TV cameras and told “that bloke from Clubs Australia” (Anthony Ball) to Just Shut Up.
(Here’s what I wrote about the situation at the time. Very pleased that I published this the day before Demetriou’s press conference!)
It was a pivotal moment for the AFL. Although they neither supported nor condemned the reforms, they were now well and truly on the national stage in terms of gambling scrutiny. And as the spotlight intensified, the AFL started to pay closer attention to the encroachment of gambling in its back yard.
Sports betting, for example. More and more teams were seeking wagering sponsorships, with all the naming and branding rights that go with them, and stadiums were striking their own deals with regards to advertising and signage. The increasing association of AFL clubs with poker machines was also a worry; almost two thirds of AFL clubs nationally run gaming venues, and in Victoria only North Melbourne is pokie-free.
All this just created more headaches for the AFL, who are openly committed to providing a family-friendly competition. Now, more than ever, integrity was crucial; issues such as gambling in all its forms had to be addressed. It is to the AFL’s credit that they actually appear to be doing just that.
There have been some quiet changes. Gambling advertising is disappearing from the giant electronic scoreboards; it’s a fantastic move that’s been made with a minimum of fuss and publicity. At a club level, teams such as Geelong and North Melbourne have aligned themselves with organisations such as Gamblers Help and World Vision. And yesterday the AFL took another step towards disentangling itself from the gambling industry in a move that has instantly drawn national attention.
Demetriou, appearing as a guest on Channel Nine’s The Footy Show, announced that the AFL was willing to help its clubs sell off their poker machines. More than that, they’re planning to actively seek consortiums to take the pokies off clubs’ hands, should the clubs agree.
This is a brilliant proposal, and one that should be roundly applauded for more than simple altruistic intent. Reducing the number of poker machines operated by AFL clubs is great PR for the league and provides a massive boost to their integrity, but it also helps ensure the viability of many AFL clubs for years to come.
The reality is that for some clubs, poker machines are a curse rather than a blessing. North Melbourne’s involvement with pokies and Etihad Stadium cost it millions of dollars, which is no doubt why they’ve chosen to stay away from them since then. Other clubs are locked into leases and business arrangements that see them making a pittance from their machines… it is only the already-wealthy clubs such as Collingwood and Hawthorn that have been able to negotiate deals that see them reaping the rewards of their poker machine venues.
So giving clubs an “out”, a means of divesting themselves of their machines without financial repercussions, would be something many clubs would jump at. Add to that the uncertainty over the future of the poker machine industry, with legislative changes looming on the horizon and a definite shift in the public perception of the industry which could well lead to a downturn in spending on machines down the track, and the AFL’s decision starts to look better and better.
You only have to look to the NRL to see what can happen when gambling and poker machines become enmeshed with sport. Their clubs were dragged into the poker machine debate out of necessity, as in many cases it was poker machine revenue that allowed them to survive; the resistance was spearheaded by Penrith Panthers, who operate at a loss year after year despite raking in more than $90 million annually from their pokies. The reputation of the NRL has suffered as a result.
It needs to be said that this won’t reduce the number of poker machines or venues. The AFL is not talking about getting rid of their clubs’ pokies altogether… just selling them to someone else. The machines will continue to operate much in the same way they always have.
But if the clubs agree to the AFL’s proposal, and buyers can be found, then the AFL will have taken a massive and significant step away from the poker machine industry, and gambling in general. The clubs that do agree to the idea will no longer be compromised by the venues they run, and will be insulated from whatever legislative changes the future may bring. And supporters will no longer have to accept the fact that their teams are propped up by the gambling dollar… well, the poker machine dollar anyway.
Let’s hope the clubs play along.
For a breakdown of gambling involvement in Australian sport, please see gambling and your team.
For media reports about Andrew Demetriou’s announcement, check out these links: