In the middle of my three most important sporting events of the year on Saturday – P3, L3 as far as I’m concerned, but the heroic third was a narrow 9-8 defeat I was playing in, rather than the miserable 4-length whippings that I watched in swift succession later in the afternoon on the Thames – I had a phonecall from the BBC, asking me to comment on the mooted plan by FIFA and UEFA to ban in-play betting.
What wasn’t clear from the question, and remains opaque from the headlines, is whether football’s governing bodies really mean ‘in-play betting’ or whether they mean some specific types of bets within a match. But the fact that there isn’t clarity is in itself quite concerning: it demonstrates that the media isn’t sure of the difference; and it is abundantly clear from the examples that FIFA and UEFA gave in their press conference that they are confusing at least two, and maybe three, different issues.
The immediate questions that sprang to my mind when I took the call (other, obviously, than “don’t you know they’re on the stakeboats?!”) were ones I have addressed on this blog before. First, I can’t see how it is under their jurisdiction (and although I take their point that they plan to consult betting operators, I wish them good luck in reaching out to more than twenty or thirty in a field of thousands); second, I think there are far better ways to address it; and third, I worry a lot about the enormous boost they will give to the illegal market if they pretend that failing to satisfy consumer demand in the legal market will mean that the consumer demand dissipates, because experience suggests that it doesn’t.
But what caught my eye most was the statement by Marco Villiger that, “These live bets are a problem. It’s very easy to manipulate if you contact a player and tell him to kick the ball into touch at the start.”
As FIFA’s head of legal affairs, M. Villiger is no doubt no fool. But the confusion that exists among sports’ administrators when it comes to betting issues is clear to anyone with a passing knowledge of having a punt, and it doesn’t help the important process of dealing with potential problems in sport when a large part of the betting world rolls its eyes the moment one of sport’s leaders opens his mouth.
The “time of first throw-in” market was offered by Sporting Index when I was working in the City in the late 1990s. Back then, M. Villiger would have been right: the bets were manipulated – rather famously, in fact: the players of one particular club became widely known for kicking the ball out as soon as they got it; and Matt le Tissier wrote about trying to do so in 2005, in his autobiography. (For the uninitiated among you, the “time of first throw-in” market, in seconds, might be, say, 110-120; so if a player sold at 110, kicked off, and kicked it out inside five seconds, he would collect 110-5 = 105 x his stake.)
Ignoring for a moment the very clear (in this instance) fact that the players were doing it for their own financial gain and not through any coercion (by Le Tissier’s own admission; which demonstrates the need for sport to look at itself before it runs around pointing fingers at other people for alleged ‘problems’), the question is this: if the bets were such a problem for sport, why has it taken FIFA and UEFA a decade and a half to suggest doing anything about them? And if the answer is ‘because the operator itself stopped offering the bet long ago, since the operator was the only loser’, then it surely becomes, ‘so why bring the example up today?’. I would doubt that FIFA and UEFA can name an operator which offers these bets now, or has done in years. If any readers can, please post below in reply, because I can’t.
So I suspect that the fact that it is brought up today provides proof positive of the minimal level of understanding of what is being discussed. I would doubt that many people in sport know this is spread betting, not fixed-odds betting; that fixed-odds betting does not lend itself to the specific timing of outcomes happening, but instead to whether outcomes occur or not; or that this type of betting and the ‘rise of internet betting’ that sports usually get exercised about are not the same thing. Indeed, I would put heavy money on the fact that what is being described in the media as ‘in-play betting’ is not what the betting industry calls ‘in-play betting’ at all. It refers to markets like “yellow cards” or “total corners” or “total goals” as ‘in-play bets’, when actually they are bets on things that happen during the course of the 90 minutes, and generally are not offered (as would be the betting industry’s definition of ‘in-play’) after kick-off.
In-play betting, as the industry understands it, is dominated by betting on match odds, and involves people hedging positions which have been taken before kick-off, and/or trading on the fluctuations of the match. (You back a team pre-kick-off at 3/1; it goes 2-nil up quickly and shortens to odds-on, and you lay it off at 4/5. The other team comes back into it and levels by half-time and you back your pre-match picks at 6/4; they lead 3-2 with 5 minutes left and you lay them off at 4/6.) This is immensely difficult to influence, given that the players are on the pitch while you (the punter) are not, and there is no means of the two of you communicating with each other; and the market is moving all the time (as would be true of the “total corners” and “total goals” price were it to be offered after kick-off).
The market which I can understand their concern on is individual yellow cards, although even there, I would rather see bets take place where I could see them than where I can’t. But if that is the betting market that worries them, then the sports should say so, and stick to the facts. Confusing that concern with ones that are either out-dated or non-existent does not help the debate, and it can look wildly self-serving. Take this, for example, from the CEO of the European Lotteries Association, on the same “in-game” issue:
In my view it’s dangerous. When you kick the ball out or when you make a small foul to get a yellow card this does not affect the game. He might become hooked to the criminals so this is a door which opens to criminal activities. When you start with little things, one day the same guy might tell the player to give away a penalty. I think we should sit together, the associations and sports betting organisers, to discuss what bets should be accepted.
For me, this is such muddled thinking and such a melange of different issues that it simply translates roughly as, “this is an area of gambling where my monopoly-operating colleagues and I are not at the races, and we are losing market share to the private betting industry. I would therefore like to scare-monger to the extent possible, so that we can get these bets stopped”.
Be that as it may, the fact is that there are different types of what is now being lumped together as “in-play betting”: there is the type which was so obviously manipulable at the expense of the operator that it was stopped (by the operator) years ago; there is the type which is almost impossible to influence as a match progresses because of the nature of the moving market; and then there is a type of bet which is not an in-play bet at all, which might be more easily manipulated than some others because of the targeted nature of it.
I think it is actually this third category that FIFA and UEFA want to target, and in that, at least, they have a point. But it would be better addressed by educating their players than it would by removing the bets from the visibility of the regulated market. And it would be addressed best of all if they would focus properly on the things that they can impact, and not let wooly thinking hijack the whole discussion such that it becomes a different debate altogether.