Poker-machine punters riled by Crowe crusade

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 January, 2008, 12:00am


Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe has faced down many celluloid enemies in his Hollywood career - but his real-life anti-gambling campaign has generated a storm of protest and may be his toughest battle yet.

There has been stiff opposition from Sydney's entrenched gaming industry since Crowe began his war on poker machines - a ubiquitous sight in city pubs - after buying a half share in struggling rugby league club South Sydney two years ago.

Like many sports clubs in New South Wales, it relies on income generated from its in-house 'pokies' to pay its staff, including players, but Crowe and his fellow investor, businessman Peter Holmes a Court, declared they wanted to rid the club of poker machines by the start of the football season in March.

The two men pledged to make up South Sydney's expected A$1 million (HK$6.83 million) annual shortfall in revenue by opening the club to families, launching a new fine food outlet and attracting philanthropic donations.

'We believe a club can be successful if it's a place where families can gather for conversation and good food,' they said.

As part of their moral blitzkrieg, the pair also axed the club's scantily clad cheerleaders.

To an outsider, such sentiments might seem entirely reasonable, but to many Sydneysiders Crowe's anti-pokies campaign is akin to spitting in church - a sacrilegious act.

Crowe and Mr Holmes a Court were bitterly attacked in the tabloid media; even their fellow board members pooh-poohed the scheme. The president of South Sydney Juniors, Keith McCraw, called the ban on pokies 'an attack on the club's industry' and promptly resigned. Former club president Frank Cookson even threatened legal action.

But such action is now unlikely. Just before Christmas, the board of South Sydney voted 4-3 in favour of ridding the club of poker machines, a move welcomed by problem gamblers, like Glyn Hicks, a 30-year-old carpenter who lost his life's saving on the pokies. 'It's not just the money and the material possessions,' he said. 'It's the emotional stuff - the loss of my self-worth and self-esteem.'

Although gambling is widely regarded as a social evil in this country - Australians lose an estimated A$10 billion a year on the pokies alone - no one else is rushing to follow the South Sydney model; about 85 per cent of football club revenue comes from pokies.

Despite these obstacles, columnist Frank Devine believes that Crowe and Mr Holmes a Court deserve praise for taking on what he calls the state's gambling cabal - and trying to rid New South Wales of Daleks (his nickname for pokies).

'Pubs, once convivial places, and clubs, which you expect to be clubby, are now packed with zombies in brutish congress with Daleks,' he said. 'New South Wales, with 105,000 pokies, is halfway to matching Nevada, a Dalek hellhole where you can't go to the men's room without a machine begging for the attention of your free hand.'

Those who imagined that buying a football club was just a hobby for a rich movie star and his entrepreneurial mate are starting to think again. The new owners have also launched a sports management firm and are bidding for a Twenty20 cricket franchise. On January 26, South Sydney will play an exhibition match in Florida against English side the Leeds Rhinos. Thanks to his celebrity, Crowe was able to promote the game on primetime television in the US - something that has never happened in the history of the National Rugby League, involving Australian teams and one New Zealand club.

Like his alter ego, Maximus Decimus Meridius in the movie Gladiator, Crowe is a moral crusader who understands the importance of playing to the audience.