“Driven By Greed”: Is NRL In Vegas Really About Expanding The Game Or Just Expanding Gambling Revenue?

“Driven By Greed”: Is NRL In Vegas Really About Expanding The Game Or Just Expanding Gambling Revenue?

With four major NRL teams now settled in Vegas ahead of this week’s season opener, questions are being raised about the motives behind the expansion and how engrained gambling is in the culture of sport in this country and worldwide. 

There is an ethical dilemma that has been causing debate for years. Should gambling agencies be allowed to advertise during sports or be in any way involved in the game, and what are the potential ramifications of their involvement? According to Les Bernal, from US-based not-for-profit Stop Predatory Gambling, gambling advertising has created an “epidemic of teen and childhood gambling”.  

“You have kids today on school playgrounds and in school locker rooms, where instead of talking about things that kids will usually talk about, now they’re talking about their parlay bets, their prop bets or the spread on different games. That’s a new phenomenon in our culture. And it’s having incredible ramifications on young people. Over the last three months alone, there’s been a multitude of major national stories about how, particularly, online gambling is inflicting enormous harm,” Bernal said.

It is rumoured that the total investment in the game’s expansion over five years was around $200 million. The deal secures a doubleheader this season in Vegas, with matches staged in the United States until the end of 2028. The estimated return is around $200 million in gaming revenue and $60 million in broadcasting. But it doesn’t stop there. In 2022, the NRL earned an estimated $50 million from bookmakers. These numbers are expected to expand drastically through the US with the increased exposure. At a time when many sporting leagues across Australia and the world are aiming to reduce their reliance on wagering partnerships, the NRL is being widely criticised for choosing to lean into it.

In a statement, the NRL claimed that its agreement with bookmakers allows it to limit the range of games available for betting in Australia. “This is done to safeguard the integrity of the sport, and such agreements obviously restrict commercial outcomes,” it said. “Wagering makes up a relatively small but important revenue stream which is reinvested into the game’s integrity, education, wellbeing, and participation programs”. 

“There are 330 million people in America, and if we get one per cent of their betting market, it’s an enormous revenue stream for the game,” Australian Rugby League chair Peter V’landys, who has been widely criticised for referring to sports better as entertainment, said last year when the deal was in the final stages.

According to Bernal, the choice to situate the first game of the expansion in Vegas, the gambling capital of the world, is no coincidence; it is not about building a new audience for the game but rather “tap into the massive expanding amount of online gamblers in the United States”. 

“When there’s downtime in the professional sports leagues here in the United States, what all these big online sports gambling apps do is provide people with an opportunity to bet on Belarussian table tennis, or Hungarian golf or wherever the random thing is happening to keep gamblers in constant action. That’s what they’re trying to do,” he said. 

“It’s driven by greed. They’re not, they’re not doing to introduce the American people to a great sport. They’re doing it just to exploit young men, particularly those who are already on these gambling apps, virtually every minute of the day, just to keep them in constant action with another thing to bet on”.

Bernal said that when you imagine how bad gambling culture is in Australia, you have to imagine it 1tentimes worse, and then you’ll be around the place the US is at. “Here in the United States, the gambling industry is a full partner with our state government and state governments across the country. So, states rely on the revenue and the gambling losses. So they keep encouraging citizens to lose more and more money on more and more extreme forms of gambling,” said Bernal. 

Stop Predatory Gambling is a national nonprofit organisation based in the United States with membership in all 50 states. The organisation pulls from all political sectors, and its mission is to reveal the truth behind commercialised gambling operators to prevent more victims of predatory gambling in the country.

“Here in the air in the US, the idea of sports gambling is relatively new; the last five or six years is when this has exploded across the United States. So it’s everywhere. And they’ve done it at lightning speed. Most public officials have no idea in terms of the kind of extreme marketing and advertising practices that are occurring. So it’s unleashing an incredible amount of harm here in the United States”.

The South Sydney Rabbitohs are the only team playing in Vegas that is not sponsored by a gambling company and claim themselves to be vehemently against the practice. The team is a proud partner with the NSW government’s Reclaim the Game initiative, which is designed to reduce sports betting. “Our community plays such a big role in our club, and we felt that this is a campaign we can support to reduce community exposure to sports betting advertising,” said Rabbitohs chief executive Blake Solly when the deal was signed in 2021.

Despite the club claiming that their involvement in the game has nothing to do with the sports betting industry, many have condemned the team for sending mixed messages.  “It makes a mockery of any commitment to reduce gambling harm. You can’t be part of promoting gambling one week and then claim you are promoting ‘reclaiming the game from gambling’ the next. It doesn’t work that way,” said Carol Bennett, chief executive of the Alliance for Gambling Reform.

“The South Sydney Rabbitohs are and will continue to be an important part of Reclaim the Game. They have shown their support for the initiative by publicly turning down all sports betting advertising and sponsorships and by educating their fans and members about the risks of gambling,” said a spokesperson for the Office of Responsible Gambling.

Outside of the significant ethical debate at play here, a possible legal matter needs to be considered. Of the four teams heading to Vegas, all but one is sponsored by a sports-betting company, with the Manly Sea Eagles Jersey featuring the Pointsbet logo front and centre. While there is some grey area on the topic, this kind of player endorsement would appear to be in breach of US gambling advertising laws that say ads should not include people listed as “sports pool participants”, players, coaches or trainers, for example. B&T has contacted the NRL several times to comment on the sponsorship deals. If the team’s regular season jerseys will be worn during these games, but despite initially being willing to comment, no responses were received.

The season opener games kick off live from Vegas this Sunday at 1:30 pm and will be shown across Kayo and Foxtel, with the second game also broadcasting on Nine. The games will be played live on prime time on Fox Sports 1 in the United States.




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