Las Vegas. Why the ‘fertile plain’ is sport’s barren land…

28 February 2013 Comments 1

Have you ever considered why Las Vegas has no major league sports franchises?

Until recently, I hadn’t either, but I reckon we’re now at the point where sport across the world has to clearly state its values AND live by them – just as American sport has done with the gambling capital of the world.

In my last blog, I spoke about the challenge international sport faces in combating cheating – namely doping and match fixing. Gambling is another practice that has attracted sinister forces and it’s simply impossible for sport to retain its credibility when administrators talk about the need to eradicate match fixing and spot-fixing one minute and then sign a commercial deal with a betting company or a casino in the next.

In the United States, gambling is a restricted practice, so government regulation plays a big part in sport’s position on the issue. But within that framework, the NFL, for example, regulates itself and there is no advertising related to gambling either at the games themselves or during coverage. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently said: “We want to protect our game and make sure that people believe that what they see is not influenced by anything from the outside. Gambling is at the heart of that.”

No-one is saying Las Vegas is a bad place but the NFL for one, can afford not to go there and make a connection. The NFL is in that position because it operates a supremely successful sporting model based on strong governance within the national framework. There’s a vigorous salary cap and strict business principles applied across all teams which means everyone is playing to the same set of financial parameters. With such an equitable and successful programme in place, surely it’s no coincidence that the NFL is able to apply clear principles to social responsibility?

Elsewhere, clubs and sporting bodies talk endlessly about the need for integrity. They talk about building family stands, community relationships and social understanding – and then associate themselves with products that blow the sweet talk out of the water.

Across the world, match coverage is wrapped around gambling. In Australia, the commentators are even updating the odds during a game! It’s certainly having an effect because kids in Australia are now beginning to use betting parlance when talking of their team’s chances in a game. Instead of ‘a great chance’ or ‘Buckley’s chance’ they’re beginning to talk of the chance of winning a game as perhaps being; “about seven dollars.” So when you remember that the Australian Crime Commission recently found links between doping, crime and match fixing, the fact that gambling itself is creeping into the psyche of children, through sponsorship agreements, feels a little uncomfortable, doesn’t it?

I’m certainly not suggesting that gambling should be banned, but sport and gambling have to operate independently of each other otherwise sport has no credibility when it attempts to rid itself of cheats and fixers. When there is weak governance, or none at all, the law of market forces is king.

When American billionaire Randy Lerner bought English Premier League football club Aston Villa, he was uncomfortable about the club’s shirt sponsorship deal with an on-line casino. So he ended the association as soon as he could and placed the name of a local children’s hospice on the front of the team shirts for the next season. Here was a valuable piece of commercial real-estate, given away free-of-charge to an organisation that was able to leverage donations and increase general awareness of its wonderful work like never before. If ever there was an illustration of extreme philanthropy, this was it.

That was in 2006. Now, in the 2013, Aston Villa’s shirt sponsor is… a casino group.

No criticism is intended of Randy Lerner, Aston Villa Football Club or its current sponsor but the Premier League is not the NFL and the reality of unregulated professional sport is that you have to raise funds to compete because everyone else is raising the stakes ever higher so they can pay bigger wages for the best players. But if regulation means a player in England has to live on “only” £100,000 a week when he’s been used to £150,000, I don’t think there’ll be too many people shedding a tear.

Sport must regulate itself to ensure the fight against cheats and fixers is more than a few hollow words from people playing in the devils’ playground. The administrators must lead us towards a firm sense of moral balance. The NFL still has some work to do in addressing its much publicised doping problems, but the likes of FIFA, The FA, NRL and AFL need to get their houses in order too. They can no longer sell their souls to the highest bidder and keep their fingers crossed that the associated problems will simply go away.

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