Politics and Sport – SANFL Clubs v Nick Xenophon

Who says politics and sport don’t mix? Well, plenty of people, truth be told. It’s usually when a sporting club or league takes a position on a social issue that the observer does not agree with that they give that line a run.


Of course politics and sport mix. It’s unavoidable. The personal is political and footy is very, very personal. If we want our sports clubs to stand for things, anything they stand for will be, correctly, described as political by those who oppose it.


Last week, the long-standing coach of Central District, Roy Laird, sent a letter to his board in the lead into the 2018 SANFL men’s season – they made it public. It is now hidden behind a News Limited paywall but in his letter Laird lamented that the SANFL was losing its way. Without a master plan for the future of the game and diversification of revenue streams, all that is special about the SANFL (the rich history, the suburban rivalries) will be lost.


At the same time, with a state election on 17 March, the eight SANFL clubs issued a statement on 1 March (http://sanfl.com.au/news/2018/03/01/statement-sanfl-clubs/). In it they emphasise the importance of gaming machines to the survival of SANFL clubs and encouraging supporters to “support your football club and vote wisely”. In short, do not vote for Nick Xenophon.


The X Factor


Nick Xenophon is a seemingly uniquely South Australian phenomenon. He entered the South Australian Legislative Council (upper house) in 1997 with a tad under 3% of the vote and a bag full of micro party preferences on a “No Pokies” platform. Since then he has occupied a stunt-driven centrist, often populist, position in South Australian politics.


His share of the South Australian vote has grown with each state and federal election. Heading into this election, acting as a proper political party for the first time, his party “SA Best” is polling somewhere in the 20 per cents statewide, running candidates in most lower house seats. This includes Xenophon himself running for the marginally Liberal inner north east seat of Hartley.


Xenophon is a real chance at winning the seat and a number of others, potentially gaining the balance of power in both houses of SA parliament. In such a scenario this would give him significant power and this is why the SANFL clubs are worried, shitscared in fact (they’re not the only ones as both of the major parties’ and the strong Australian Hotels Association’s campaigns against him demonstrate).


While Xenophon’s policy reach extends far beyond pokies these days, poker machines remain a key concern (https://sabest.org.au/state-policies/gambling-reform/). The party’s compromise policy is to decrease the number of poker machines in venues with 10 or more machines over a period of at least five years until the number of machines in those venues have halved. This would not apply to community clubs. In addition, they would implement a buy back scheme and a $1 maximum bet limit per spin on all machines, also capping jackpots at $500 with a range of other measures intended to reduce problem gambling.


A minor problem


In this context, I received an email from my SANFL club on 9 March, addressed to my son, echoing the sentiments of the 1 March joint statement by the clubs. Angrily, I screenshotted and shared it with the world via Twitter.


Before too long it had taken on a life of its own – particularly being used as a weapon by Port Adelaide supporters to beat on a club they don’t like. I have also been contacted by journalists, interested in pursuing what having a former Liberal state premier as Chair of the SANFL Commission might have to do with all of this.


In hindsight, my tweet was intemperate (unusual, I know), conflating my dislike for the SANFL’s reliance on poker machines with my anger that they had sent the email to my 9 year old. The following day I had a phone call from James Fantasia, Norwood’s CEO, apologising for the obviously unintentional stuff up of sending the email to a junior member. I fully accept that and bear no grudge in that regard.


So how could I have better expressed my thoughts on this matter?


I’m angry


First off, I am angry. I am angry that the footy club I love is reliant on poker machines. I am angry that the entire league is so dependent. The argument that it’s better that poker machine profits go to community groups rather than big corporates is very problematic. If our football clubs want to be seen as a vital part of their community, they shouldn’t profit from something that causes such harm to that very community.


It’s poor strategy


While some of Roy Laird’s letter is fanciful (the glory days of the SANFL are never coming back – it just cannot compete with the AFL for young hearts and minds), I completely share his desire for a master plan. And that is why this move by the SANFL clubs is such a strategic misstep. It shows absolutely no vision beyond the immediate protection of its only significant non-football revenue stream. It shows no strategy, only desperation.


Nick Xenophon visited Alberton Oval the other day and pledged $7.2 million in funding towards the redevelopment of Port Adelaide’s facilities at the ground. Note, this is the same Port Adelaide that took $300,000 profit from the $6.784 million of revenue generated from its pokie-laden licensed venues last year. Despite that, Port Adelaide aren’t going to say no. Why would they put any major SA politician off side?


So in a three horse town, why has the SANFL chosen one not to ride? Particularly when SA Best’s policy to halve the number of pokies does not affect them – in fact it would decrease their competition. The only impact upon SANFL clubs would be the other measures to decrease harmful patterns of gambling. Surely, standing back a tad, that’s something they should support.


It shows the SANFL continues to lack vision


It’s not a new thing. The SANFL for the most part prevaricated in the 1970s and 1980s as the VFL created a national competition around it. Not to excuse Port Adelaide’s treachery but it’s not surprising that by the time Ross Oakley came to SA with an offer for the two major clubs, that one could not refuse.


And, of course in its inimitably reactionary style, the SANFL folded and paid the $4 million licence fee to enter the Crows into the AFL, making Port wait six years to get what it was undoubtedly going to get. Worse still, this handed responsibility for the game nationally to the V/AFL – one body responsible for the game and a league, what could possibly go wrong?


Perhaps a national league on fair terms was never a possibility, because the VFL would not play ball, but the SANFL dragged its feet. We are seeing exactly the same thing now on the issue of poker machines. The eight clubs have become largely dependent on this one source of external revenue and have been watching that revenue steadily decrease. People don’t play pokies as much as they used to, young people for the most part do not at all.


The ethics of it all aside, pokies are becoming an increasingly unreliable source of funds for footy clubs and at some point in the future the SANFL will have to exist without pokies or not exist at all. So instead of telling the ever dwindling pool of members not to vote for Nick Xenophon, why on earth isn’t the SANFL standing next to him and/or Jay Weatherill and/or Steven Marshall, announcing funding commitments for the 10 year future proofing plan for the SANFL, including a pokie free competition?


In fact, why stop with South Australian politicians? The SANFL is a feeder league to the AFL (sorry, but it’s true) and comes under the umbrella of the AFL Commission. Given the current push to get the pokies out of AFL clubs, this is exactly the moment the SANFL should be seeking more funds from the AFL to make this a reality at the state league level as well. Whether it would really be about reducing harm or not, such a strategy would at least give the SANFL and its clubs a morally authoritative position to negotiate their withdrawal from poker machines, and some level of control.


The survival of the SANFL is vital for the ongoing development of footy in one of its strongest heartlands. But it will require plenty of compromise, some clear vision and quite a bit of canny strategy. Based upon the last few weeks, we are sadly a long way from seeing this.



So, to have those 280 characters over again


This email I just received, addressed to my son, reinforces my anger that the SANFL shows no strategic vision in creating a sustainable competition which is necessarily one without pokies. As a member I feel betrayed.


Sure it’s unlikely to get any retweets, but at least it wouldn’t be used as a thuggish weapon to batter my club, which was not my intention. So, of course, should you be South Australian by residence, this weekend indeed vote wisely. Just try to be sure that those seeking to advise you have wisdom on their side.


About Dave Brown

Upholding the honour of the colony. "Play up Norwoods!"


  1. Brilliant article Dave. Rapier logic and moral authority. It reminds me of the Bob Dylan line “money doesn’t talk it swears”.
    If pokie revenue is so vital to the “success” of the comp, why 2015 WAFL 18.13 def SANFL 11.10? And in 2017 WAFL 20.14 def VFL 10.11 (in Melbourne). There are no pokies outside of the Burswood Casino in WA. Maybe the SANFL clubs measure “success” by the size of the salaries of their staff?
    Don’t get me started on marketing to kids. While we are blessed not to have community or hotel pokies in WA the sports app/social media from the gambling mercenaries has created a whole generation of new addicts. Doing the help line over here I get weekly calls from parents and teachers about the impact of sports gambling on their kids. It’s poisonous.
    GA meetings in Perth 5 years ago were crumbly old racing gamblers like me, with a few casino desperates thrown in. Now over half our attendees are under 30 and sports gamblers. Every addict seriously affects 9 other people through family and work.
    Gambling companies work on the 80:20 rule of 20% of clients who can’t help themselves generate 80% of their revenue. “Gamble Responsibly”? Please?

  2. Don’t footy clubs realise they are poisoning their own well? Young competitive males are more prone to gambling addiction because we think we can beat anything. We have had several footy players and a coach at our meetings. People who are reluctant to come forward for help until they have lost everything, due to their shame, guilt and isolation. Just because your players aren’t gambling in your venues (we are good at hiding our secrets) don’t believe it isn’t happening. Here is a sample of NRL examples (several are champion players) and the same is true of AFL/SANFL etc.
    13 of 16 NRL clubs have gambling company sponsorships on their jerseys and clubrooms. How’s that working out for you?

  3. Yvette Wroby says

    Terrific piece and agree whole heartedly. Wish Pokies were gone everywhere. When I pass one I see elderly people who can ill afford the losses. But as Peter correctly states, gambling and betting on sports has become a nightmare. I can’t watch tv sports or listen on the radio ( bless you ABC for being exception) and the new addicts will be the ones hooked through sports.

    Thanks for this. There needs to be thought and action.

  4. Well played, D Brown.
    Crystal clear.
    Research outcomes, anecdotal evidence all reveal pokies to be a blight on any community.

    I wonder if those authorising their installation may be one day liable for knowingly placing vulnerable people at risk of mental health impacts and addiction. In the style of cigarette manufacturers and their knowing about adverse physical health impacts and physical addiction.

    If no one agitates, nothing changes.
    Play on.

  5. Chris Rees says

    Your righteous anger has cooled into precise and wise (yet not cynical) counsel, Diogenes.

  6. John Butler says

    This is a great piece Dave.

    This is a bigger problem than footy clubs. Our politics is in thrall to gambling/pokies influence. State governments sup off the tax revenue. The recent Tassie election was a prime example of the sector’s willingness to aggressively pursue its interests.

    To bring it back to footy, I think you’re right to raise the question of how much clubs benefit in the long run. Carlton has had Bruce Mathieson or one of his representatives on its board for a long time. He has put a lot of money into the club, directly or indirectly. But has it really made that much of a difference to our fortunes? We’ve hardly prospered this century.

    I know of local cricket clubs that found pokie money hurt them in the long run. Easy money isn’t always good for the culture of organisations.

    Everything has its cost.

  7. Brilliant Dave.

    Wouldn’t it be great if the tax-exempt AFL showed some benevolence and leadership and helped state-league football?

  8. Hi Dave,
    Sporting culture is an expression of political and economic structures so, it is disingenuous, as you write, for people to claim that sport and politics shouldn’t mix. It is normally a euphemism for ‘get your politics out of my sport’.
    Benny, CEO of the Richmond FC, has recently expressed some reluctance to whole-heartedly endorse an immediate getting out of the pokies business by his Club. I found his ambivalent stance a little sour given their revenue from the recent premiership. So, even the big clubs are finding it difficult to separate themselves from this cash flow.
    The funny thing about pokies is that they’re not related to a game’s outcome. The gambling companies the AFL aligns itself with can impact the ‘integrity’ of the game’s outcome, in a more direct way than what pokies could.
    If the AFL makes it beholden on the clubs to distance themselves from pokies, perhaps, they too should distance themselves from their own gambling alliances.

  9. Verity Sanders says

    Thanks hugely David – as a South Adelaide member (Women’s) I also received the email and was waiting til I calmed down a bit before replying. Is it okay if I forward this article to them ? Says it far better than I ever could.

  10. Dave Brown says

    Thanks for the read and the comments, all. PB, yeah (agreeing with pretty much everything of greater substance you have typed), absolutely, the WAFL is a model which shows a pokie free state league is possible. It is worthwhile noting, however, that a number of WAFL clubs are struggling financially and that they receive more $ from the WAFL than SANFL clubs and spend less on zone development. Also, at least some of the last interstate result can be attributed to the fact that Graham Cornes was coaching the SANFL and picked a team entirely unsuited to the contest.

    Thanks Yvette. My nephew was playing a cricket final at a community cricket/netball club the other week, where the moment the clubrooms opened at 10am there were people on the pokies. Not a great look.

    I reckon the edges are being nibbled around that at the moment, ER. There seems to be mounting evidence that the programming is designed to create addiction. In which case liability exists.

    The only problem, Chris, is I don’t know if it is realistic.

    Trouble with the AFL, Mickey, is they will not spend a cent they don’t have to (which is not a vanity project). They’ll allow state leagues to flounder in their death throes for as long as possible before deciding if there’s anything worth salvaging. Culture and history is unlikely to feature highly on their list of priorities, it appears.

    Agree entirely, Andy.

    By all means, Verity, spread far and wide.

  11. JBanister says

    Am better for reading this. Well bowled.

    Looking forward to watching the Premiers in Adelaide week after next! Shout if you fancy a pot, I’ll be in the member’s (as long as they let the tattooed riff raff in).

  12. Thanks for this article, Dave. It will be interesting to watch this space RE: SA footy, politics and pokies.

  13. Luke Reynolds says

    Dave, wonderfully written piece. In total agreeance.

    It’s hugely important what our sporting clubs/leagues/associations stand for. Without them taking sides.
    I find the AFL a massively contradictory organisation. So much good achieved, so many wonderful causes supported. Coupled with pokies, sports betting, higher level greed, lack of support for state leagues etc.

    Would love to see a day when a thriving SANFL, and AFL, cuts ties with pokies.

  14. Dave Brown says

    Thanks Jack, sadly I’ll be camping up in the southern Flinders that weekend (not sad I’ll be camping, sad I’ll miss a pot (schooner here in SA)).

    Thanks Jarrod, with the talk on the Footy Show last night of a national reserves competition potentially as early as next year, this potentially moves the goalposts (and red point posts) for the SANFL.

    Thanks Luke, yep, it’s the contradictions that are the most galling. Perhaps that’s why we hark back to the footy of our youth, before we were aware of all the contradictions.

  15. With all due respect to other Knackers, this is the best piece I have read this week on the Nac site.
    Well played, Browny.

    So many issues swirling around here – but the major one is of course that pokies are a blight on society. And just as Crackers says: surely the SANFL must make a decision and stand for something!

    re Xenophon: a populist wind-bag whose voting history in the senate is littered with obfuscation and cheap talk.

  16. “A populist wind-bag whose voting history in the senate is littered with obfuscation and cheap talk.”
    Fits Bill and Malcolm to a tee. Care to name an Australian political leader this doesn’t fit? (Senate, House of Reps, or State Politics.)

  17. Sorry PB. I cannot.

  18. Excellent article, so well argued and presented. It would be great to see the SANFL look past vested interests by taking an ethical stance on this and following the WAFL. They have much to offer the local community if they could differentiate themselves from the “Big League”.

  19. Pamela Sherpa says

    If clubs today have become so reliant on poker machine revenue, it makes you wonder how on earth they ever existed before. Yet they did! And therefore should be able to again. Why on earth any organization would choose to go such a cancerous path as relying on gambling is beyond me. The AFL would have to be the most hypocritical organization I can think of.

  20. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Timely piece Dave, with the AFL season starting we are already being bombarded with gambling ads. If it were up to me I’d blow up the pokies as The Whitlams state here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D4WOTqKxCy4

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