I didn’t make the sport and betting conference that took place in London last week, but from what I have heard, it discussed many of the same things as the last one, which in turn discussed many of the same things as the one before that. What is striking about that is that the discussion between the sports industry and the betting industry has remained largely unchanged for a decade, while the two industries themselves have changed a great deal.
The thing that I find fascinating is not so much the fact that they have changed, but how, in terms of integrity, they appear to be moving in opposite directions. Twenty years ago, the betting world was opaque, to be kind; while sport seemed – well, almost Corinthian. Maybe I was just younger, and therefore commensurately more ignorant of one and starry-eyed about the other. But I am not sure it is as simple as that.
Reading Simon Barnes on Tevez in the Times on Friday – an article worth the price of the subscription in itself, if you don’t have one – was only one thing which brought this thought to mind. Another was an interesting suggestion – not denied, in the end - at another sport and betting conference (in Brussels the week before): the journalist and academic Declan Hill asked UEFA’s Chief Legal Counsel, Pierre Cornu, how UEFA could employ as a senior representative someone who had had to leave the United States because of questions over his propriety and corruption. I say ‘in the end’ because initially M. Cornu scoffed at the idea. Only when Mr. Hill was more precise, and referred to “one of your vice-presidents, perhaps?” did the public argument come to an open-ended conclusion, with the denial apparently wihdrawn.
At the same conference, suggestions were made, I gather, about the difficulties that a central organisation (like UEFA) has in governing minor leagues in some of the countries in what we might call the Wilder East. I understand that there was a tacit acceptance even from senior football governors that all is not, perhaps, as they might wish it to be. Given that as high-profile a league as the English Premiership has no rules about who is allowed to own a club, and very few governing the transfer (or sale price) of players, I can imagine that dealing with second league football in Somedistantvania is not the easiest job a central administrator has ever been landed with.
The fact that it is difficult to govern doesn’t remove the basic point: when it comes to integrity matters in sport, there are very few rules (other than the Corinthian ones which Simon Barnes explains have been blown away); and as a result there are a number of areas within its basic governance that apparently cannot be dealt with in the way we might all wish.
Contrast this with the modern betting industry, which in its legal form is regulated by a very large number of very explicit and clear rules, audited by specially-created commissions, and punishable – if breached – by stints in jail.
All of which suggests, to me at least, that the on-going obsession with ‘sports betting integrity’ (most recently picked up with gusto by various EU institutions in Brussels) is somewhat misplaced. It seems to me increasingly clear not just that sports integrity and betting integrity are two different things, but that the latter, in its regulated format, is far superior to the former.
The black market in betting is pure criminality – hence the frustration expressed by both sides of the debate about the lack of police engagement on the subject. But that frustration should not obscure the fact that the licensed part of the market is not just seen to adhere to the rules, but is bound to under threat of criminal sanction.
In contrast, the lack (within the sports industry) of rules which are standard corporate governance in other industries means that throughout sport – even within the upper echelons of some of its main administrators, if Mr. Hill is to be believed – it would seem that there are questions to be answered. People in key political positions should stop talking unthinkingly about ‘sports betting integrity’, and consider where both industries stand today in fact rather than perception.