Does the mooted betting ban tell us anything about sport?

I spoke at a sport and betting conference at Stamford Bridge yesterday, and the subject of the potential ban on those under the jurisdiction of the FA from betting on football matches came up.

The plan, as it was put to me, was that anyone who plays football at any professional level will not be allowed to bet on any other professional football match; and the question that I was asked was what I thought the implications of that were for the relationship between sport and betting going forward.

The suggestion of Rob Hartnett, my fellow panellist (assuming you can have a panel of two) was that we may be about to reach a tipping point on the other side of which there is no relationship between betting and sport at all, which means no shirt (or other) sponsorships. Citing the way that both tobacco and alcohol were big sponsors of sport in the past (but are no longer, at all in some countries), he suggested that the future may herald sport without betting backing.

There are lots of reasons why I think it unlikely that that particular view of the world will come to pass, but it might take a longer blog to explain them another day. For now, with time short, I wanted to put down my own view of the implications.

Ultimately, it is entirely up to football (and any other sport) where they draw the line on who, under their jurisdiction, can bet. I would have concerns that a blanket ban of the sort proposed ends up being unenforceable anyway, and am reminded of the conversation that I once had (more than ten years ago) with the well-known director of a First Class County Cricket Club who had just learned that strictly speaking, he wasn’t allowed to bet on any matches in his sport either. When I last saw him at CMJ’s memorial service, he told me that he still punts in the same way as he always did.

But aside from that, what interests me most is to understand why they have selected the extreme end of the spectrum, when deciding what steps should be taken to address the problem at hand. Indeed, I’d like to know what they think is the problem at hand, on the basis that if the answer is ‘to deal with match-fixing’, this would surely constitute using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Is it really logical to stop someone who plays in League 2 from being able to have a bet on the final of the Champions’ League?

Match-fixing is a funny old topic. On one hand, it sounds so simple; but on the other, it isn’t. If stopping match-fixing in sport is the aim of governing bodies, how do we deal with the team that engineers a second-place finish in a qualifying table to secure an easier route to the final? The question is not flippant, as sports regulators often seem to think when I ask it. We all know it happens, which is why betting markets often reflect its likelihood, and a team suspected, on form, not to have a prayer is offered at a shorter-than-expected price. What then? The result comes to pass, plenty of money has been won, and the suggestion is made of a fix. Is this what we’re trying to stamp out?

To my mind, it isn’t. I think it’s clear who or what we want to beat, and that’s people who secure a false outcome of a sporting fixture for financial reward. This should, in my opinion, be a goal that every right-thinking, non-criminal individual wants to achieve. It raises wider questions again, of course, as the scandals that engulfed Italian football in 2006 clearly show.  But the aim is clear enough.

But the trouble we have in this on-going debate between sport and betting is that all these things are forever thrown into a single mix, with the match-fixing issue being just one example of many. Another is ‘illegal bookmakers’ – a term used by different people to mean completely different things. Legal bookmakers in one country might be illegal in another, on the basis that they don’t have a local licence, so people having the same conversation and using the same words might just as easily be talking about the guys on the backstreets of Mumbai, or Ladbrokes in France.

The implications of the impending ban on those under FA licence from betting on any football are therefore less about the immediate ramifications – very limited, in my view – than they are about the bigger question of how the proposal was arrived at. The bottom line is that I can find no-one who really understands punting who thinks it is a solution that makes any sense. In nearly every industry, poachers turn gamekeeper. Regulators join commercial bodies; businessmen move into government; competitors tempt away talent from competitors. Unsurprisingly, sports expertise in the betting industry abounds: businesses have hired it to bring expertise in an area of significant importance, and a perspective that doesn’t already exist.  When I was at Betfair, for example, we hired people – leaders – out of racing, better to understand what the issues were in running the sport; and all over the betting industry, there are people who came from outside it,  brought in to provide real, in-depth, expertise.

But the other way around, in order to understand properly some of the the many nuances involved in running a regulated business in a global marketplace where much of the competition is from the black market? Well, I wait to be corrected, but I can’t think of a single person who has made the trip the other way. No-one in football, rugby, or cricket. No-one at the BOA. No-one at the IOC. No-one in FIFA, UEFA, the RFU, the ICC, the LTA, the ATP… I could go on. Fifteen years on from the start of the internet betting boom, despite the widespread acceptance of the importance to sport of understanding the world of betting; and despite the commercial opportunities that exist as a result of it (not to mention those missed), not a single hire has been made from betting into sport. How can that possibly make sense?

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