AFL lines up prudent punt on reducing football clubs' reliance on pokies


The AFL, a big business with a vested interest in the profitability and financial sustainability of the community clubs that underpin it, claims it wants to wean those very clubs from one of their most lucrative sources of funds.

Footy clubs used hundreds of poker machines to rake in close to $100 million in the past year alone. Hawthorn stormed home with $23.29 million, followed by Carlton on $17.6 million. Other clubs with a pokies penchant include Essendon ($11.85 million), Collingwood ($12.2 million), Melbourne ($10.3 million) and Geelong ($5.24 million). North Melbourne, for the fiscal footy record, got out of pokies almost a decade ago, amid growing community awareness of the extent and harms of gambling addiction.

The AFL’s decision to investigate and then reduce clubs’ reliance on gambling should have been made before now. But the organisation should be given the benefit of the doubt – and a chance to show, not merely assert, its bona fides. There is reason to be wary, though; the AFL’s advisory group on what has been dubbed “Project Fruit” is chaired by a former gambling industry boss and the presidents of the two teams to whom supporters are losing the most through gambling machines.

The clubs argue they return some of the money to the community by supporting projects and organisations, and that they could well be insolvent were it not for the gambling machines.

The AFL’s move comes at a sensitive moment. The state government recently said the next round of gaming licences in 2022 would be granted for 20 years, double the current term. It is also moving to permit community clubs to double the number of poker machines they operate.

This gives the AFL clubs an opportunity to increase market share. But club officials across the league privately concede discomfort about relying to such an extent on pokies’ proceeds. Publicly, though, the clubs and the AFL handball blame to the Victorian government for perpetuating pokies.

It is true successive governments have reaped billions of dollars a year from a gambling industry they have been happy to help expand. But that would not justify any claim for taxpayer-funded compensation by sports clubs were regulations adjusted in light of all the evidence.

Tobacco and alcohol, which are legal and lethal, have rightly been distanced from sport. It would be similarly wise to minimise the role of gambling in something with so much influence, particularly on children. May the AFL’s project prove fruitful, rather than a charade.

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