Fri, Jan 3, 8:29am by Mia Chapman
A rugby league club is getting back into the gambling business.
The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the Melbourne Storm is applying to open a poker machine venue in Melbourne’s west to reap millions from punters’ losses every year.
The application for an 80-machine venue in Truganina comes less than a year after Victoria’s only NRL team exited their previous pokies assets, having declared they wanted to follow several AFL clubs in weaning themselves off gambling revenue.
A planning application lodged with Wyndham City Council lists Storm as the operators of a gaming venue within a proposed hotel and hospitality development at 231 Leakes Road, next to a recently developed residential zone 19 kilometres west of the CBD.
The club want the gaming room to operate from 7am to 3am – the maximum 20 hours a day permitted – and expect the 80 machines to generate between $7.5 million and $8.7 million in the first year.
The Storm have previously said they wanted to build up their club membership base and cut their reliance on poker machine revenue.
One of the club’s co-owners, online betting tycoon Matthew Tripp, called it a “necessary evil” to improve the club’s financial affairs.
In February, The Age revealed the Storm had achieved that goal with the sale of the Kealba Hotel in St Albans, which was bringing close to $20 million in gambling losses a year.
Alliance for Gambling Reform executive director Tony Mohr said it was disappointing Storm had backflipped on their earlier exit from what he said is a damaging industry.
“The majority of AFL clubs in Victoria have moved out of poker machines and Melbourne Storm should be looking towards other codes to see that poker machines and sport don’t go together,” Mr Mohr said.
“They want to make sure their team represents their values on the field and off the field, and that means keeping themselves as clean and as out of gambling as they can.”
Melbourne Storm declined to comment.
The planning application says most of the proposed venue’s poker machine revenue would come from Truganina residents who currently gamble at other venues.
It says the net increase in gambling losses attributable to a new venue would only be $1.2 million to $1.9 million, which would make a “negligible” influence on problem gambling behaviour.
Meanwhile, the application says Truganina would benefit from Storm’s involvement in the area through cash donations to community groups and employment from the construction and operation of the new development.
Along with Mr Tripp, who built a fortune at online bookmakers Sportsbet and BetEasy, the Storm are owned by Jayco caravans founder Gerry Ryan and club chairman Bart Campbell.
Storm’s private owners bought the club from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in 2013 and have stabilised the once financially troubled team’s accounts.
While many NRL clubs are heavily reliant on pokies revenue, a backlash led by anti-gambling campaigners has seen AFL clubs including Collingwood, Melbourne, Geelong and the Western Bulldogs all either exit or plan an exit from gambling.
North Melbourne has been pokies-free for more than a decade.
The proposed Truganina development will go to vote by Wyndham City councillors in early 2020.
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Victoria’s only NRL club is privately owned by a conglomerate including caravan magnate Gerry Ryan and bookmaker Matt Tripp.
The group sold the Kealba Hotel in Melbourne’s north-west, including its 172 poker machine licenses to IPR Hotels in January, 2019.
The hotel in St Albans was the only Storm-related pokies holding and is a site where punters lost the fourth-highest amount of money out of nearly 500 venues in Victoria. Losses at the venue neared A$20 million in 2018.
The Victorian government’s gambling regulator has indicated that poker machine licenses are valued at approximately A$13 million.
The sale of the license and the hotel points to a significant windfall for the 2018 NRL Grand Finalist’s, who purchased the venue for A$10 million in 2015.
The Kealba Hotel is within the Brimbank local government area, which last year recorded the highest pokies losses in the state.
The A$140 million loss figure is a state record.
The Kealba Hotel and pokie machine sell-off has been welcomed by gambling reform advocates.
Reverend Tim Costello has implored the new owners of the venue to operate it more “responsibly than Melbourne Storm, which was trading the maximum 20 hours a day, seven days a week in one of Melbourne’s most disadvantaged communities.”
Only a handful of NRL clubs consistently turn a profit, with many reliant on pokies revenue.
League clubs Canterbury and Penrith pocketed the most of any in 2017, registering revenue of more than A$65 million from their venues.
NSW Treasury data projects poker machine profits in the state to grow by 12 per cent in the next four years to reach A$7 billion by 2021.
The Storm last year announced an ambitious plan to increase the club’s membership base to 50,000.
“We want to see membership go from 25,000 to 50,000, and based on the modelling we’ve done and the experience of the last five years …we genuinely believe we can get there,” Mr Tripp said.
Mr Tripp said owning a hotel was necessary to stop the bleeding in the club, for it to stand on its own two feet.
“We’re not reliant on the gaming venue, which means the gaming venue might not be necessary for us as we progress. I would prefer to just focus on the club rather than other moving parts of it,” he said.
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