Crowe fights one-armed bandits one club at a time

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 January, 2008, 12:00am

It's not quite life imitating art, but Russell Crowe's latest screen battle with a hoodlum in American Gangster bears more than a passing resemblance to his fight against one-armed bandits.

Just as Richie Roberts witnesses first-hand the scourge of heroin on New York's streets, the actor who plays the outcast cop has recoiled at the dire consequences of ubiquitous slot machines in his home city of Sydney.

And fans are discovering that the movie star with the famously short temper has a social conscience to match. The focal point of this Tinseltown-led experiment to recreate community spirit is the South Sydney Rabbitohs, an iconic working-class rugby league team and Crowe's first sporting love.

Along with multimillionaire businessman and mate Peter Holmes a Court, the 43-year-old last year bought a majority A$3 million (HK$20.6 million) stake in the once all-conquering club that in recent years has struggled to stay afloat. The pair immediately injected some Hollywood glamour, dressing players in Armani suits and green-lighting a fly-on-the-wall TV documentary series that followed the Rabbitohs' progress to the National Rugby League finals series.

When Crowe's wife, Danielle Spencer, complained about the club's scantily clad cheerleaders, the star replaced them with a drumming band.

It was just one part of his bid to make the game more family friendly, and challenged the testosterone-fuelled, beer-drinking and often sexist status quo. But if that move was viewed as provocative, Crowe then fired a warning shot that threatens to shatter the financial foundations on which the sport in Australia is built.

The club is based in the inner-city suburb of Redfern, an area beset by unemployment, poverty and crime. And in the past 15 years residents have poured A$100 million into the South Sydney club's poker slot machines - known throughout Australia as 'pokies'. More than half came from people on social security benefit, a statistic mirrored in the A$10 billion eaten up by pokies nationwide every year.

Crowe and Holmes a Court want to create a club that helps bind the community it represents, and in August the actor told his friend he wanted to get rid of the club's 60 machines. 'Russell asked me to see if I could make this happen financially,' Holmes a Court said.

The licensed Souths Leagues club is separate from the sports operation, and a business plan was soon put forward by Holmes a Court to a highly sceptical seven-man board.

Few expected them to embrace an initiative that would cost the club more than A$1 million in revenue each year, but the star pairing's powers of persuasion worked again. Last month their plan was passed by a 4-3 majority. With the approval of the club's 20,000 members expected, the club - currently undergoing a A$35 million renovation - will have shaken its pokies addiction when doors reopen next year.

Holmes a Court expects new members, plus better eating and entertainment facilities, will eventually bridge the revenue shortfall. 'We want to create a place that welcomes conversation, live music and families,' he said. 'We can build a place and a football club where people say, 'I want to be a part of it for all it's doing in the community'.'

The decision makes Souths the first venue to give up pokies for no profit since the machines were introduced to New South Wales in 1956.

There are about 100,000 poker machines in New South Wales alone, about 10 per cent of the global total and more than in all of the United States. Australia's biggest state accounts for more than half of the nation's pokie takings. It is hooked on the billions they generate, a share of which boosts government revenues. But the social impacts are devastating. Much of the revenue is provided by the most vulnerable, who are least able to afford it.

Problem gamblers lose an average of A$12,000 a year, compared with the A$625 of those said to be unaffected. Seventy per cent of the 330,000 Australians with moderate to severe gambling problems are addicted to pokies. In New South Wales, Souths is one of a network of 1,400 licensed clubs that coin A$3.3 billion annually from pokies. Last week state premier Morris Iemma said he would love to throw every machine into Sydney Harbour but that the money they provide for health and education is just too important.

The clubs have long taken the same line, justifying the social misery caused on the basis that proceeds are ploughed back into the community on everything from subsidising pensioners' meals to buying equipment for local sports teams.

Eleven of the bigger venues effectively underwrite NRL clubs, backing them to the tune of between A$3 million and A$5 million each season, although the cash-strapped Souths Leagues club has provided no money to the Rabbitohs in recent years. Its pokie revenues pale in comparison with mega-operations like Penrith and Canterbury, which reputedly earn at least A$50 million annually. Such clubs are in no mood to give up their rivers of gold just yet. The body that represents New South Wales' licensed clubs described the Souths move as 'brave'.

'The club industry has existed off the back of gaming and for this to work would certainly need to defy conventional history,' said a spokesman for the clubs. 'If we were in a situation where all of the NRL teams were suddenly trying to exist without gaming or leagues club support, it wouldn't happen.

'Leagues clubs provide about A$40 million funding to the football clubs and that kind of sponsorship money just doesn't exist in New South Wales.'

But anti-gambling advocates hailed the high-profile pair as pioneers.

'This is the tipping point for more and more venues to be pokies-free,' said Nick Xenophon, an independent lawmaker who was elected to the federal senate last month on a 'no pokies' platform. 'But we need to assist them. We need to make sure that venues aren't making huge profits from pokies off the backs of problem gamblers as they are now, and also to encourage those clubs that have got the guts and courage to go pokies-free.'

While Crowe and Holmes a Court insist they are not telling anyone else how to run their business, they have offered to help other clubs kick the pokie habit.

'Our hope is that we can go along to the New South Wales government and say: 'Let's create a framework for other clubs who want to do this',' Holmes a Court said.

'There are plenty of other clubs that are facing questions around their viability. Let's try to find a new model that works for them as well.'

Holmes a Court, who spent 16 years in the US, said it was hard to persuade a club so reliant on pokie revenues to fundamentally change its business model.

'This is about us putting the club on a proper financial footing, and the model for that worldwide is membership,' he said.

Crowe, currently filming in the US, was said to be delighted by the board's acceptance of his plan. But there may still be stumbling blocks. Although members are expected to ratify the decision, two of the opposing directors are understood to be considering a legal challenge.

The board has also hedged its bets. Rather than getting rid of the machines, they are being locked up. Should Crowe's vision fail, directors could bring the pokies back.