Sport's union with betting is never trumpeted but cheques are always cashed

Scott Heinrich
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Chris Hyde/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Chris Hyde/Getty Images

Death threats used to be so much more sincere. Before social media arrived to make us all infinitely better humans, one would have to go out of their way to air a grievance. Nowadays, any dope with a laptop and an axe to grind has free rein to spout all manner of toxicity behind the veil of relative anonymity. “People often say things on the internet that they would not say if the speaker were identified,” Judge H. Lee Sarokin wrote on the Huffington Post, almost a decade ago. Not much has changed.

But even if the faux machismo of the modern-day troll means we now take the most hateful words with a pinch of salt, a death threat is still a death threat. Even if the perpetrators would likely greet daybreak with a measure of contrition – and quite possibly a stinking hangover – this hardly makes them any less answerable. Forlornly, professional sportspeople have become easy targets for doing no more than their level best. Worryingly, the gambling dollar is increasingly a factor.

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Last week, Greater Western Sydney midfielder Callan Ward was the subject of a craven attack on Instagram for milking a free kick and kicking a goal late in a game against Essendon. “The most disappointing thing is I have a lot of Essendon supporters, a lot of AFL supporters, commenting on photos of Romeo, my baby, and saying I’m a flog, all this stuff,” Ward said. “It has just got to stop. If you’re getting death threats like I’ve been getting, there’s some players [who] couldn’t handle that.”

The episode struck a nerve with several of Ward’s colleagues, who have reported similar online abuse when their deeds on the field have the effect of scuppering a bettor’s wager on the match. Brisbane Lions player Mitch Robinson was the most vocal, tweeting in support of Ward: “Not one AFL player gives a flying f*** how we cost you a $100 multi, it’s $5 bet you idiot. If you’re struggling with that amount please don’t punt in the first place.” Others – including basketball’s Andrew Bogut and the NRL’s Ryan Papenhuyzen – have stepped in with similar stories to tell, while Western Bulldogs forward Josh Bruce says vitriol from disgruntled gamblers is a commonplace. “30+ minimum abusive messages a week, mainly around gambling. The delete-all button gets a good work out without reading – serious problem that would affect younger players/ones with mental health and confidence issues already,” he tweeted.

While mental health at a community level has taken a nosedive during the pandemic, online gambling is giddily going through a boom time. One estimate places wagering on digital platforms in Australia as experiencing a surge of almost 150% during Covid-19, all at a time of economic ruin brought about by record job losses.

It may seem as if wagering companies are the bloodsuckers in the host-parasite analogy – and it is true that sports betting provides a significant revenue stream for these organisations – but sporting codes rely on the punting dollar just as much. In receiving a slice of the wagering pie on top of monies generated from the ubiquitous sports betting adverts – sums that venture into the tens of millions for Australia’s big codes – administrative bodies and broadcasters are very much in bed with the wagering industry.

Take a look at the coverage of any AFL or NRL game. We may have come a way since the days Tom Waterhouse’s market plugs were weaved through programming as if essential viewing. But continual throws to pre-recorded grabs of the latest odds show there is no escaping sports broadcasting and wagering marching on hand in glove. Equally, in much the same way fantasy games drive viewership and engagement, broadcasters and administrators are well aware of the positive effect betting has on ratings. It is a statistical fact a neutral supporter is more likely to tune into a drab contest between two also-rans if he or she has placed a bet on the match.

This intrinsic connection between sport and gambling doubles down on the duty of care administrators have to their participants and supporters. But while, in the case of Ward, the AFL, the players’ association and Essendon are all saying the right things about online trolls and accountability, the root of the issue is unlikely to be addressed. Ruling bodies have become dab hands at spinning the ground made in shielding children from gambling advertising and fighting the scourge of corruption, data-sharing and grooming. And professional sport in Australia remains coy about its relationship with the betting industry. The union is never trumpeted publicly. But it never fails to cash cheques earned from its association with a bedfellow that exists to pry hard-earned money from the common man.

Betting on sport is not illegal, and nor should it be. But when players can not pick up their phone for fear of abuse from a mug punter, the onus for action rests with their employers. It is a long shot, however, that anything truly meaningful will be done. Not when these employers have willingly become part of the problem.