Online bookies win big amid Victoria’s COVID crisis

Victorians’ losses to online bookmakers soared by hundreds of millions of dollars as Melbourne went through its COVID-19 lockdown, rising up to 35 per cent on pre-pandemic levels.

More than $1.4 billion was lost by Victorians on sports wagering and online betting in the second half of 2020, an increase of $375 million on the same period in 2019, as the state endured its deadly second wave of COVID-19 and Melbourne spent four months locked down with physical gambling venues forced to keep their doors shut.

Gambling reform campaigners say the vast majority of the “shocking” increase in losses was gambled away online, driven at least in part by aggressive gambling industry advertising, and they have renewed calls for curbs on the sector’s ability to spruik its services on TV and online.

But the wagering industry is dismissive of claims it ramped up advertising during the COVID crises, saying they are not supported by evidence.

The state government’s gambling tax revenue figures for the June to December 2020 period, published in its recent mid-year financial report, reveal the scale of punters’ online losses through the locked-down months.

The data follows news that the mostly overseas-owned corporate bookmakers gained tens of billions of dollars in market value during the past year.

Meanwhile, the increase in Victorians’ daily losses to poker machines since venues reopened late last year continued in February, with gamblers blowing nearly $8 million a day on the machines, according to the latest Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation data.

Overall losses for the month – when a fresh statewide lockdown shuttered gambling venues for five days – were down to $182 million from $239 million in January, but the daily total grew to $7.9 million in February from $7.7 million in January.

Alliance for Gambling Reform acting executive director Margaret Quixley told The Age she was shocked but not surprised by the extent of last year’s online losses.

“We knew that when [gambling] venues shut … there would be a bombardment of gambling ads, particularly when children were confined to their homes, and that there was a real risk of this kind of outcome,” she said.

“This was entirely predictable because when we went through the [global financial crisis] we saw the same thing, people experiencing social isolation and financial distress are at greater risk of gambling harm.”

Ms Quixley said Australia should have followed the example of Britain, where the industry agreed, under political pressure, to an advertising moratorium as the nation entered its first lockdown in April 2020.

She warned harm stemming from the big losses in Victoria could be more concentrated among a smaller group of people – those more inclined to gamble online.

“The evidence suggests that it was young men in particular that either opened a new betting account or gambled more intensely,” Ms Quixley said.

“While the total number of people who gambled may have been less because physical venues were closed, those who gambled, gambled more intensely.”

Brent Jackson, chief executive of industry lobby Responsible Wagering Australia, said there had been no bombardment of ads during the COVID crisis.

“I’d love to see the evidence for that, I certainly haven’t got it,” he told The Age.

He said online bookmakers were subject to stringent controls on their advertising and there was no need for them to consider a British-style voluntary pause during the worst of the pandemic.

“Complaints against the wagering code [for adverts] are down to .31 per cent of all complaints, its negligble,” Mr Jackson said. “We’re doing the right thing already, the evidence is as clear as a bell.

“There’s just no eveidence of any problem whatsover.”

A spokeswoman for state Gaming Minister Melissa Horne told The Age the government was aware of the spike in online gambling losses but the lengthy closures of the casino, pokies venues, TABs and Keno in 2020 meant overall losses were “significantly lower”.

“We’re also investing in new research to examine the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the gambling environment and the implications for associated behaviours and harm,” the spokeswoman said.

Federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said the Australian Communications and Media Authority would continue to monitor the effectiveness of the government’s 2018 reform as the environment for the broadcasting of live sporting events evolved.

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