Under pressure of the pandemic, Australians turned to gambling

Australians turned to novelty bets when other avenues weren't available. Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay.
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Australia’s COVID lockdowns saw more punters grabbing their phones to place a bet online. Alex Catalano reports.

Online gambling rates among Australians rose during lockdown, even when popular leagues like the AFL and NRL were on hold.

Betting companies quickly switched to offering significantly more options for novelty bets.

SportsBet, one of the largest online bookmakers in Australia, had markets on various events, awards and TV shows, from the Triple J Hottest 100, to the ARIAs and Logies, and even Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year.

Over one period, a daily market was opened to allow punters to bet on what colour Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s tie would be in his next press conference.

This was a deliberate strategy, according to gambling expert and researcher Dr Alex Russell from CQ University in Sydney.

Dr Alex Russell. Picture by Alex Catalano

“If you look at what corporate bookmakers offer online, they offer sports and race betting as their major markets, then they have a few smaller things as well, like betting on eSports, or betting on novelty events, like what colour tie [Prime Minister Scott Morrison] is going to wear at his next media conference,” he said.

“For the operators, with sports going away, that was a huge problem. What they did was change their advertising mix.”

Part of that advertising mix has been a greater focus from betting companies on advertising on social media, particularly with viral and meme marketing from companies like PointsBet and SportsBet.

Among novelty bets available is the word of the year.

“It’s a way of getting new people in the door, who think it’s a laugh,” Dr Russell said.

“It is very targeted at young men, the jokes are usually targeted at them. The advertising on social media is usually quite clever. They’re very good at their social media advertising.

“A lot of companies are learning what works and what doesn’t, but gambling operators certainly are at the forefront of it, and it’s relatively cheap. Social media marketing, compared to television advertising is pretty cheap.

“You have one person on your social media team, they keep you up to date on everything. A lot of their Tweets are telling you things like ‘this race is about to come up, and this horse looks like it could go all right, so jump on to our page’. It’s not all about gambling.”

Gambling more often during lockdown

A study Gambling in Australia during COVID-19, released last month, showed gambling rose across all Australians during lockdown. Those surveyed gambled more often – the number who bet four or more times a week increased from 23 per cent to 32 per cent.

Betting on horse racing, greyhound racing, financial markets, TV shows, novelty events and loot boxes in video games all saw a rise in the numbers, the Australian Institute of Family Studies study showed.

Associate Professor Charles Livingstone, who is head of the Gambling and Social Determinants unit in the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University, said it was uncertain why punters flocked to their phones, tablets and computers to place a bet during lockdown.

“Some researchers argue that [increased online gambling] is a response to boredom, frustration and stress during the lockdowns, but this is not entirely clear,” he said.

Alex Catalano’s small social media survey (above and below) reflects the findings of bigger studies. Half of respondents were in the 18-30 age bracket.

A/Prof Livingstone said those who already suffered from gambling disorders or problem gambling may have been, or would continue to be, more at risk.

“People who are already harmed by gambling may find it difficult to avoid the lure of gambling … we do know that the normalisation of gambling among young people is pervasive and wide.”

Dr Russell said loot box systems in video games are one way young people are exposed to online gambling, and they may not even realise it.

“We’re concerned about video games with gambling-like components,” he said. “Certain types of loot boxes are seen to meet the definition of gambling. They are not regulated, and are regularly available to people under 18.

“There are restrictions for younger people that help [when gambling in person], but, for example, parents are still one of the biggest facilitators of underage gambling.”

Loot boxes are a gambling mechanism within video games, typically requiring an additional purchase within the game after buying, and are not age-restricted. Players are encouraged to pay for these boxes, which have a low chance of containing rare items that can be used within the game, some of which may not be available otherwise.

Dr Alex Russell talks to Alex Catalano.

Regulation is still being developed, and has a lot further to go.

“They have warnings on the boxes when you buy them in store, or on the game page when you buy them online. Once you’ve bought the game though, what warnings are you going to see? More in-game warnings would help,” Dr Russell said.

A/Prof Livingstone said gambling advertising needs to be subject to higher scrutiny, which may be difficult.

“Regulation of gambling is not particularly effective at present, and generally relies on the dogma of responsible gambling,” he said.

A public health approach focused on harm prevention and minimisation is needed. The most effective way to address gambling advertising would be to prohibit it – just as tobacco advertising was prohibited.

“Targeted marketing has been effective in increasing expenditure … gambling is woven into the fabric of sports and games, and makes it much more acceptable for them [young people] to take up gambling.”

Dr Russell says gambling can be a greater risk for people who are already struggling with other addiction-based issues, particularly during lockdown.

“We do find that problem gambling is usually associated with a lot of other issues. People who experience it tend to drink a lot, or do drugs, or smoke. We do see a lot of those links,” he says.

“People who gamble are typically trying to cope with something. High levels of gambling are more of a symptom of another high-level issue, and it exacerbates it.”

“[Most people are] gambling because it helps [them] get away from a problem.”