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Ban Twitter? Surely ICC should be doing the opposite?

I’m scratching my head this morning at the news that the ICC has banned the use of Twitter during the Cricket World Cup in order to reduce the likelihood of corruption and the use of inside information.

I picked it up as I arrived in the office after attending a breakfast at which the Egyptian Ambassador to London told the gathered throng that events in his country, where GDP has quadrupled in the last decade, were the result not of economic hardship (since this generation is having it far better than any previous Egyptian generation), but because of the broad reach of… you’ve guessed it: Twitter. And on the same day as i, the newspaper, published its list of the 100 most influential tweeters in Britain (inexplicably not mentioned, by the way. I’d have thought my 100 followers would put me right up there), which outlines how close you can get to breaking news if you follow the right people.

The dichotomy between these stories  seems to me to ram home a point that has long been implied but perhaps never more clearly demonstrated: there is a serious lack of understanding out there about what constitutes inside information, and by extension, in my view, what constitutes corruption in sport.

The ICC ban has been imposed on the back of Cricket Australia encouraging “team manager Steven Bernard and coach Tim Nielsen to tweet during games as a way of keeping the fans informed during the Ashes”. The experiment, apparently, was “a big success, and Bernard attracted over 1 100 followers to his Twitter account”.

If a piece of information is known to 1,100 people, how can it possibly be deemed to be ‘inside information’, or to be the cause of corruption?

Surely, the last thing on earth the ICC should be doing is banning Twitter. In fact, they should be doing exactly the opposite. If Twitter does anything positive (and my wife tells me it doesn’t), then surely it is democratising information (I hesitate to say ‘knowledge’). And what bigger blow to corruption can there possibly be than for everyone to be ‘in the know’ and privy to the inner-most thoughts of people nearest the action? Far from being a threat to a sporting contest, a Twitter feed is a positive. Ban the use of Blackberry Messenger by all means, if you can find a means of imposing it; but Twitter?

This reminds me of the time when the media got its knickers into an enormous twist over the fact that Harry Redknapp was moving from Southampton to Portsmouth – a managerial transfer which, they said, showed that betting corruption lurked round every corner. Five Live Sport led their flagship evening programme with the news that ‘more money has been bet on Redknapp going to Portsmouth than was bet on this year’s Grand National’ – a statistic based on turnover of £16million with Betfair, without the understanding that much of the money was being matched at 1.01, where to win £1 you need nominally to ‘turn over’ £200, by having a £100 stake matched by someone else.

The furore had been whipped up by the fact that the then Southampton Chairman, Rupert Lowe, had commented that an FA rule had been broken and there must have been an illegal approach made to Redknapp, for evidence you only needed to look at the movement in the betting. It was a perfectly sensible comment which was completely misinterpreted, and all hell broke loose.

What Lowe meant was that he, as Chairman of Southampton, should have been the first person to know that Portsmouth were interested in hiring his manager, because FA rules required them to approach him before they made an approach to anyone else. But the price of Redknapp in the ‘next Portsmouth manager’ market had shortened from around 25-1 to about 3-1, before anyone had asked him for permission to make an approach. And when he subsequently refused permission, the price continued to shorten, suggesting that plenty of people knew that talks were on-going. His statement was therefore absolutely correct: there was obviously enough knowledge out there that Redknapp was a serious contender, and in theory there shouldn’t have been because without Lowe’s permission, he couldn’t be.

But by the time the story was making big headlines, Rednapp was basically a shoe-in for the job and was trading at odds on. In fact, as mentioned, he traded, for a long time, at 1.01. And that was when the media went mad: the fact that people were piling in at 1.01 was, they said, proof of inside information – completely missing the point that if there was inside information anywhere, it had been demonstrated by the small sums of money that had moved the market from 25 to 3. But forget that: it was the big money at 1.01 that showed there was a problem, ran the story. Someone, somewhere, knew that Redknapp was going to sign.

What a load of old cobblers. Someone, somewhere? How about ‘just about everyone, just about everywhere’, not least because it was being broadcast as a stone-cold certainty at just about every media outlet in the country? That’s not inside information: it’s information that you basically need to be living on a desert island not to have heard. In that particular case, even my mother knew about it, and she spent 40 years while dad was doing Match of the Day not understanding the difference between the League Championship and the FA Cup, given that the same teams appeared to play – a mantle which, I was amused to hear this morning on Five Live, has now been picked up by Vassos Alexander’s missus.

If you put money on an outcome where you have to bet £100 to win £1, you are not really betting on the fact that an unlikely event is going to occur. You are betting that a very likely event indeed will be formally announced before the person connected with the event in question is hit by a bus. You aren’t using inside information at all: you are betting on the percentages, like you do when you take out insurance.

But if this seems obvious, it clearly wasn’t understood at all at the time. And if the ICC’s ban is anything to go by, it would appear that it still isn’t today. People in and around sport appear to continue to believe that they need to prevent the broad dissemination of information, when what they need to be tackling is the opportunity for shady back-room deals in meaningless matches, and people actually altering a result in order to ensure that an outcome falls in line with them. These are two very different things, and an understanding of that fact would make the problem a whole lot easier to address.

Posted in Betting industry, Regulation.

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5 Responses

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  1. Mr Magoo says

    I think you’re misremembering some of the details of the Rednapp ‘next manager’ betting.

    The reason it was news betting-wise was the fact that his odds were so short compared to the public news being reported at the time. Rednapp and others close to the deal were emphatically denying the transfer at the same time as the price on it happening was massively odds-on. Yes, there was crazy trading on clear speculation (I remember the betting going crazy at every Sky Sports news report, or rumour of person ‘x’ being seen at football club offices ‘y’, and so on), but the key reason the market stood out was that the odds were saying something completely opposite to what the market participants were saying.

    Would transparency have improved had twitter been so prevalent back then? I doubt it. It would have been another conduit for misinformation.

  2. MD says

    Some of the details might be fuzzy, but I remember very well doing a radio interview with Five Live on the night they led with the story, because I was meant to be playing football and I spent the first twenty minutes on the touchline on my mobile phone, for which I subsequently took a lot of abuse. At the time, the price was 1.01, and the question I kept being asked was “doesn’t this show that someone knows something?”. This was at the same time as News24 had a reporter outside Fratton Park waiting for a press conference to announce the new manager!

    But, precise details on an event six years ago aside, isn’t the point still the same? It seems to me, at least, that broadening the audience of people who can be made aware of the views of someone closely involved in the action can only be a good thing, not a bad one.

    I accept your point that some people out there might use Twitter to misinform and try to shift markets, but you can’t be the England cricket captain and tweet misleading information. Sure, some faceless user can tweet stuff that is false (but probably only get away with it once in betting terms), but the ICC has no jurisdiction over some faceless individual and the ban doesn’t cover that category of person in any case. The ban is about people whose tweets are accountable, and allowing them to tweet would, it seems to me, ensure that everyone has access to the same thought that is being issued – not just people in a press room, or wherever else the person happens to be talking. You may disagree, but for my part I can’t understand how broadening the audience can possibly be a bad thing, in any betting-related circumstance.

    As to whether transparency would have improved, well yes, my view is that if ‘acknowledged faces’ had been tweeting about their own positions, that could only have helped. If a personality is tweeting his position on a topic, then as I see it there has to be less scope for rumour around his views on the topic, providing he is accountable and not in a position to give intentionally misleading information. Certainly, as far as the Cricket World Cup is concerned, I would far rather a player were tweeting to the whole world “I fancy it out there today – looks like a batting track to me” than I would he tells someone next to him in as he walks into the ground.

  3. Mr Magoo says

    Ah, I see your point – I didn’t realise you were referring to the betting at the very end. For several days there had been huge amounts of speculation and the odds on the market were all over the place, mostly long odds on, e.g. 1.05 – 1.20, but not at the 1.01 near-absolute-certainty stage of things. The key thing being, there was absolutely no public information to warrant such confidence. A look at who the big backers were would be very interesting!

    Anyway, as to the main article issue about tweeting, I don’t have any huge argument against that. The ICC decision seems foolish. But just allowing people to use twitter (or whatever) does not guarantee transparency, it could still be just another channel to spread truth or lies.

  4. MD says

    Agree entirely that it doesn’t guarantee transparency, and didn’t mean to suggest it does. I was arguing it from the other side: banning it doesn’t help the issue in any way. If they want to address corruption, then they need to look at more fundamental things. As @paulkelso points out today, “Twitter definite threat to integrity rather than, say, the huge number of meaningless matches in the tournament”

  5. stevetheweed says

    Once again the ICC get to grips with the issues of pith and moment in the sport !.

    Surely the extra distraction twitter would bring to the thumbs and index fingers of the worlds bowlers would lead to less effort or desire to pick the ball stitching apart between overs or cut maps of the London underground into the ball surface.

    I will admit that our very own DIY betting system for cricket (pass the £20 note at every appeal) is possibly open to abuse. However the average professional sportsman’s tweet is going to amount to little more than “my iPod going flat”. This is hardly the information to bring down William Hill is it !.
    Imagine, dear ICC member, that we could get a weather forecast in-play and bet on a draw because its going to rain – panic gentlemen indoor cricket, quick save us !. Fools.

    As someone who still uses a turnstile to see sport perhaps the ICC should stop worrying about “information” from the dressing room and give us a ‘product’ on the pitch. Well constructed tournament formats, top players and the rules applied fairly are perhaps better items on the next meeting agenda.

    Annoyed, me, never !

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