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Is Online Gambling Really an Australian Epidemic?

If you’ve read any Australian newspaper this week (or looked at their websites), you’ve probably seen some very alarming headlines. “Rising online betting fears,” said the Herald Sun, which also referred to new trends in online gambling as a “betting epidemic.” “Cyber betting warning,” chimed in Adelaide Now.

But do the facts really support such dire warnings? Let’s take a closer look at what all the talk is about.

Increased Online Gambling

The news being reported this week is related to data collected and released by Experian Marketing Services. According to that data, there has been a significant rise in traffic to Australian sports betting and lottery sites over the last six months, with a total increase of 23% over that period. That figure means than there were five million more visits when compared to the previous six months, certainly a significant increase.

Most of that increase was attributed to sites that are regulated and based in Australia itself. For instance, Tabcorp was visited approximately 8.6 million times over that period, while Tatts reportedly received 6.9 million visits. Foreign sites lagged far behind their domestic counterparts; 888.com was the most popular foreign bookmaker, and received just over 212,000 visits.

A Growing Problem?

Those numbers certainly support the idea that online gambling is growing, but it’s not certain that this should be considered a problem. While problem gambling is always an issue whenever betting is allowed in any form, there was no information in the study related to compulsive gamblers – thus, there’s no way of telling whether the growth has had any negative side effects.

In fact, based on the government’s expected support for expanding regulated online gambling, these results can even be seen as a positive. One of the major reasons for the proposed expansion is to keep more players on Australian sites, rather than playing at unlicensed foreign websites. If Australian players are spending more of their money and time at Australian bookmakers rather than with those based in Europe and other locations, that should be seen as a win.

Of course, not everyone reads the data the same way. Some have pointed out that the relatively low traffic numbers for foreign bookmakers might put a dent in the federal government’s argument that expanded online gambling is necessary to protect players from unlicensed sites. After all, if few players are using the foreign options anyway, perhaps there’s no problem to fix.

The Bottom Line

Without any evidence of an increase in gambling addiction to go along with the increasing traffic at online bookmakers and lottery sites, it’s difficult to see the talk of an “epidemic” as much more than media sensationalism. Since the government has approved the sites that are receiving the vast majority of the traffic, the success of these sites should be seen as a positive: the revenue made by these sites stays in Australia, as do the tax revenues collected by the federal and state governments.

As for the argument that the relatively low number of players participating on foreign sites means that online gambling liberalization is unnecessary, there are two issues with that point of view. First, expanding the games that can be offered by Australian firms will only serve to keep more players on their sites. This is particularly true in the case of online poker, which wasn’t covered in the recent report. Since Australian players can now play poker only at foreign sites, revising the Interactive Gambling Act to allow domestic poker sites will be a big windfall for licensed bookmakers, and could bring a lot of online poker money back into the country. Add those numbers to the picture, and it becomes clear that there’s plenty to be gained by keeping these players on Australian sites.

In addition, even many opponents of online gambling use “harm minimization” as a reason to give licensed Australian bookmakers more leeway in the games they can offer. Even if the number of players using unregulated foreign sites is low, even those players are deserving of the protections that come with offering regulated, domestic alternatives. It’s clear that online gambling reform will benefit players, companies, and governments alike – and that an increase in online gambling is certainly not an “epidemic.”