Analysis-Slots to smartphones: Pandemic sends Australia’s gambling problem online

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By Byron Kaye and Praveen Menon

SYDNEY – For Rhys Wareham, a technician in the Sydney coffee industry, the start of covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 didn’t just mean staying home, but having to stop going to the pub every afternoon to play poker machines.

So he switched to a smartphone app that allows him to track bets on his favorite sport, baseball, wherever he is.

“The gambling itself doesn’t stop,” said Wareham, 31, who has a young child and is two-thirds through the process of paying off a 30,000 Australian dollar ($19,968) gambling debt. ) that bankrupted it eight years ago.

“Whatever hundreds of dollars I spent in the afternoon on pubs now goes to sports betting apps.”

Already the world’s largest gambling nation in terms of loss per person, Australia has seen a change in betting behavior since the pandemic forced closure of public places.

Player losses on poker machines declined for the first time during the pandemic, but at a far slower pace than an unprecedented rise in money lost on apps, data showed. This means that more players are exposed to an industry that is harder to regulate than traditional gambling.

Australia’s gambling industry has been in the spotlight in recent years, with public inquiries hitting its biggest casino operators over breaches of money laundering protections. Online gambling has also come under investigation, but with its growing prevalence the government has responded to consumer advocates by pledging to take a closer look.

App providers are mostly overseas, such as London-listed Flutter Entertainment APIs – owner of Australia’s most popular betting app, Sportsbet – and Entain APIs, owner of the third-ranked Ladbrokes app. Unlike sites, they benefit from marketing methods such as SMS promotions that do not fall under the gambling advertising restrictions.

Players’ loss on poker machines was A$11.4 billion in 2021, down A$1.1 billion or 17% from 2019, the year before lockdowns began, showed data from the Monash University School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine.

But player loss in online sports betting rose by A$3.2 billion or 80% to A$7.1 billion over the same period, according to figures provided by consultancy H2. Gambling Capital, which excluded credit often rewarded in promotions.

In comparison, the total loss of players in online sports betting overall increased by 58%. Australia overtook Britain, which has nearly three times its population, to take third place in online losses, behind the United States and Japan, H2 said.

“Online operators have been competing for business from customers who would have bet at land-based facilities,” said Ed Birkin, senior consultant at H2.

“The severity of the lockdown has also been a driver for Australia to be towards the upper end of online betting growth,” he said, referring to movement restrictions until October 2021.

Almost a year after lockdowns ended, Sportsbet account numbers have barely changed, showed deposits from Flutter, whose regular customers include 6% of Australia’s adult population – one million people.

Flutter did not respond to emails seeking comment.

A spokesperson for Entain said the company has “more player safety tools than any other operator on the market, including the use of algorithms that help us detect problematic behavior and then to intervene”.

WORLDTO CLASSIFYPROBLEM

After decades of gambling deregulation, governments are cautious about reversing course, given tax revenue and industry lobbying, even amid public concern over a habit that robs voters of $25 billion. Australian dollars per year – or 1,000 Australian dollars per person, more than double in the United States.

The new centre-left federal government said this month it would hold a parliamentary inquiry into online gambling, although some recommendations from a 2015 inquiry have yet to take effect.

After this previous investigation, the state and federal governments agreed to create a “self-exclusion” registry by May 2020, through which gamblers can opt-out of registered betting apps.

Two years later, the register is “well advanced” but not operational, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, which oversees the register, said in an email.

POKIES VERSUS SHOTGUNS

While the lockdowns have made many forms of socializing a crime, gambling has become more appealing to “socially isolated or bored” young men, said Rebecca Jenkinson, executive director of the Australian Gambling Research Centre.

“At their fingertips, they have round-the-clock access to online gaming. They play because it’s so available and heavily promoted.

Yet slots – known as slot machines – are so entrenched that experts don’t expect online betting to become the country’s main gambling habit anytime soon, with the sites home to some 200 000 machines returning to their usual activities.

“Australia has slot machines like America has guns,” Wesley Mission, a nonprofit that supports problem gamblers, said in a policy document.

“It is our national disgrace and many of us are oblivious to the harm it is causing to the people we know and love.”

Wareham, the cafe’s technician, said he no longer uses the poker machines and family responsibilities help him control his online betting. At least he’s not spending an entire paycheck in one sitting anymore, but he fears the others will fare worse.

“For anyone who’s 25 and thinks there’s millions of dollars in there, there isn’t,” he said. “There are millions of dollars to lose.”

($1 = 1.5024 Australian dollars)

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