AFL 2023: Gambling losses reach 10-year high at venues owned by Carlton Blues, Essendon Bombers, Richmond Tigers and St Kilda Saints

AFL 2023: Gambling losses reach 10-year high at venues owned by Carlton Blues, Essendon Bombers, Richmond Tigers and St Kilda Saints
AFL 2023: Gambling losses reach 10-year high at venues owned by Carlton Blues, Essendon Bombers, Richmond Tigers and St Kilda Saints

Carlton and Essendon are among the four AFL clubs accused of “trading on people’s misery” as more than $40 million was sunk into club-owned poker machines in the past financial year.

According to data from Victoria’s betting regulator, the Blues pocketed the most money off gamblers’ losses of all four clubs, while punters who played Essendon’s pokies lost the most per machine.

Carlton, Richmond, Essendon and St Kilda are the only four Victorian clubs left in the pokies business.Credit: Flavio Brancaleone

Carlton, Richmond, Essendon and St Kilda are the four remaining clubs that hold gaming licences in Victoria, amid mounting criticism from both the government and public.

Data from the Victorian Gambling and Casino Control Commission shows that gamblers lost $40.2 million across the 690 pokie machines operated by eight club-owned gaming venues last financial year.

The total amount lost is the highest figure spent at those four clubs’ venues in a decade.

Monash University gambling expert Charles Livingstone described the revenue stream as “exploitative” of vulnerable people and harmful to the reputation of the clubs.

“Trading on people’s misery is no way to endear yourself to the ordinary person, particularly football fans who really want an entertainment forum which is enjoyable and family-friendly,” he said.

Carlton profited the most off gamblers’ losses – punters sunk more than $19 million into the club’s 290 machines spread over four venues, $4.5 million more than in the previous financial year.

Gamblers lost $14.7 million across the Bombers’ venues in Melton, amounting to a $77,500 loss per machine (Essendon own 190 machines). Comparatively, those who gambled at Carlton’s venues lost about $66,000 per machine.

Before this year, the two Essendon-operated venues’ total gambling losses had been steadily decreasing since hitting a peak of $15.1 million in losses in 2008, which reflected a trend across the state.

Livingstone said COVID-19 restrictions prevented the operation of poker machines, but once they were lifted, gambling losses exceeded $10 million more than the previous year. He added that using pokies also provided an escape for those facing economic hardship amid increasing inflationary pressures.

“[Poker machines] channel brain chemicals and make people feel good, and that’s why people get addicted to them so easily. So in economic difficulties or in tough times, it’s not hard to understand why pokies attract people, and why they tend to spend more money on them than they should,” he said.

“If you ask in general what the reasons for people spending more money on pokies are – particularly at a time like this when a lot of people have insecure employment they don’t have enough money to pay the bills – poker machines are very good at providing a sort of escape from reality.

“At least half of the money that goes through poker machines comes from people who are essentially addicted to them. For those people, the consequences are shattering.”

Five AFL clubs have weaned themselves off poker machines over the past four years: Collingwood, Geelong, Hawthorn, Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs.

“Although the AFL is up to its armpits in gambling money from the online wagering companies, the reality is a lot of clubs are sensible enough to realise their reputation is not enhanced by taking money from essentially addicted people,” Livingstone said.

Responding to the data, No Pokies at Essendon (NoPE) president Mike Read said:

“In recent years we have seen AFL clubs rush to get out of the pokies business, recognising the immense social harm they cause. Essendon, instead, points to the revenue that gaming machines provide the football club, as though yet another disappointing season on-field justifies the continued damage that the predatory machines inflict.

“For a long time now AFL clubs have been guided by commercial interests, but it’s important that they don’t forget they’re also operating within communities. Part of that is to ensure they don’t leave those communities worse off – an important test that the club, through their pokies operations, is currently failing.”

Asked about the figures and NoPE’s statement, the club pointed to a statement issued in May in response to an open letter from Essendon fans that urged the Bombers to abandon their poker machine licences : “The financial stability and independence of the club is paramount, and we won’t compromise that by making a rushed short-term decision”.

Gamblers lost $1.8 million at St Kilda’s venue and $4.6 million at Richmond’s – an increase of more than $300,000 and more than $1 million, respectively.

Across all of the state’s gambling venues, gamblers sank more than $3 billion into the state’s poker machines. This appears to be a steep rise when compared to the 2018-19 figure of $2.7 billion. But Livingstone said the rise could be attributed in part to inflation.

“The thing is inflation increased by 16 per cent over that period … Although it’s a spectacular number – over $3 billion lost on pokies between July 2022 to June 2023 – in real terms, it’s a little bit less than what was lost in the year between July 2018-June 2019.”

In the 2018 financial year, when nine Victorian clubs had poker machine licences, the clubs’ revenue from pokies was $97.5 million.

“If somebody has a serious pokie habit, it alters their life forever. They lose assets, they lose partnerships and relationships, they lose their employment, often they don’t get a proper education and so on,” Livingstone said.

In March, the annual AFL Fans Association survey, revealed exclusively by The Age, found 47 per cent of the almost 3000 respondents nominated gambling advertising when asked to select all their concerns from a list.

St Kilda, Richmond and Carlton did not respond to questions.

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