Australia’s betting culture, which changed with the entry of foreign bookmakers, is gradually returning as punters fight back against practices such as cutting big bets and closing winning accounts.
But lobby groups say more needs to be done. While the two biggest states have led the way with legislative changes, members of online forum Fair Wagering Australia are still leading the charge to enact change across all of Australia.
When major global bookmakers William Hill, Paddy Power and Ladbrokes moved in on the Australian market, critics say the wagering giants brought a more ruthless attitude to business.
Specifically, many big-spending customers complained of being "cut-off" and having accounts canceled or their sizeable bets on racing refused – actions that now have come under the scrutiny of authorities and been targeted by new rules.
Horse racing gambler and contributor to Fairwageringaustralia.com.au Richard Irvine said the culture changed immediately when the British and Irish bookies took-over, but the tide seems to be turning. Critics called the big bookmakers’ attitude “un-Australian.”
“We just wanted to stand up to these bookies, coming in and taking over the industry, telling us how it should be run and turning it into a talentless, unsophisticated industry,” Irvine said. “If we didn't act the way we did and the racing authorities in New South Wales and Victoria didn't bring in new rules the industry would be much worse off.”
As it stands so-called racefields legislation, which gives racing authorities the right to decide what fees they charge on racing, allowed Racing New South Wales and Victoria to enact laws imploring bookmakers to bet to a certain amount and stopped the practice of banning accounts.
Bookmakers taking bets in those jurisdictions must adhere to minimum bet laws and it is now illegal to cancel accounts under normal circumstances.
New South Wales governing body Racing NSW started the ball rolling in mid-2014 when CEO Peter V'Landys announced rules that forced bookmakers to stand to lose A$2,000 on a bet at a city meeting, and A$1,000 on provincial and country fixtures – with almost overnight results.
Racing Victoria then followed suit and brought in the same rules in late 2015.
Even though the rules still have some provisions in favor of bookmakers, Irvine says it has been an overwhelmingly positive change.
“Bringing in the minimum bet laws helped a lot – it has set up more fair, dynamic markets suitable for professional gambling,” he said.
But cutting or refusing bets isn't just unfair, experts say, it is driving many customers into illegal markets, a claim backed by the Australian government's “Review of Offshore Wagering” last year.
A Hong Kong Jockey Club submission to the review estimated the amount wagered through a single operator, believed to be CITIbet, on Australian racing each year at $930 million (US$660.8 million) per year, representing 8 percent of total turnover from Australian licensed tote operators.
Queensland is the next frontier for change, with new Racing Queensland CEO Eliot Forbes seemingly reluctant to follow suit, having already resisted change when in charge of the sport in Tasmania with Tasracing.
As with many issues in Australia racing, the fractured political nature of the sport – which lacks the advantage of a single governing body and has three major totalisator operators – mean that enacting wholesale changes across the country is difficult.
The trouble for smaller state-based racing jurisdictions has always been reliance on sponsorship from corporate bookmakers rather than the amount delivered back to the sport via a levy on turnover or profits – so they can be reticent to "bite the hand that feeds' and pressure the bookies.
Yet some bookmakers seem to be seeing the light anyway, as operators realize that, as Irvine puts it: “the model of not betting anybody just doesn't seem to work in Australia.”
Laws aside, as Irvine suggests, the catalyst for true change across all of Australia will come from customers, as bookmakers begin to realize the value in more competitive markets.
William Hill-owned brand Centrebet has been relaunched with a more aggressive “high stakes” strategy aimed at attracting high rollers, the website brandishing the gold headline on its landing page: “winners are welcome”.
Punters also say Lloyd Merlehan's TopSport also boasts a more personalized service where professional punters can get set for big wins.
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