Gambling on Sport’s Future

Is all the strife that the mushrooming sports betting industry is causing really worth it?  Like climate change, we’re in danger of passing the tipping point. 

They say the urge to gamble is even greater in times of financial stress.  Whilst we may have deflected the worst of the global financial crisis in a way Fuifui Moimoi brushes tackles, sports betting is out of control and in danger of controlling sport.   Betting is now so imbedded in the permaculture that its runners threaten to strangle the virtues which drew us to sport in the first place – the thrill and spectacle of the contest and the ability and courage of its stars.

For many of us growing up, sports betting was confined largely to various forms of racing, where to be honest, without the gambling element, the activity itself would attract less viewers than Dance Your Ass Off repeats.  For reasons that now see history repeating, betting on regular sport was once heavily regulated or banned.  In Australia, legal betting on sport wasn’t reintroduced until the late 1970’s, after 80 years on the outskirts of the law.  Even then, it was a gradual process with modest returns.

It’s commonly said footballers are treated like cattle.  Perhaps horse meat is more apt.   We cannot watch a game now without the latest odds being intermittently flashed on the scoreboard or our TV screens.  That your team has already blown out to $12 before your second coldie or the other mob is paying $1.01 effectively does what commentators, for obvious reasons, avoid doing – kill the suspense and sense of unpredictability.  Nor should a culture of betting on sport be ingrained in our youth.  Yet these are petty gripes in the grander scheme of the punt’s nefarious underbelly of worldwide corruption, money laundering and gambling addiction.

Now a massive captive audience has been truly awakened, naive sports fans-cum-punters adding more chapters to the great book of cautionary tales of unfortunates lured by the likes of online poker, casinos and the g-g’s.

The vastness and depth of betting pools has soared in recent years, with opportunities for organised rackets exacerbated by the plethora of meaningless games and unwieldy leagues with overlong seasons, and tournaments fulfilling only to sponsors and television networks.   Gambling has already threatened a number of sports such as football, cricket and running, and destroyed rowing as far back as the 19th Century, but now the options are infinite, temptation just a few keystrokes away with everything from Major League Baseball to the Czech Women’s Soccer League forming part of an estimated US$24b pa online industry.  With internet and digital television technologies set to merge enabling betting via our TV remote controls, more accelerant will be poured on the wildfire.

And no longer are we constrained by boring old straight up bets, as bizarre multis and a host of obscure propositions tempt casual punters, sparking interest in even the most mundane contests.   Perhaps a misguided notion that humans are more reliable than the nags is partly to blame.  This debate isn’t about creating a nanny state though.  Like most fun stuff, beyond moderation there are repercussions.  That is the lot of grown adults.

What is becoming apparent is that despite the scandals which nearly brought cricket to its knees at the turn of the Millennium, governing bodies are embracing the punt like never before.

The NRL’s multi-million dollar relationship with TAB Sportsbet and Betfair presents an interesting test of where its priorities lie.  Bookmakers are angry that League’s governing body can profit from the deals but withhold information to punters.  The hue and cry when footballers withdraw from a game mistakenly has teams and their coaches beholden to the demands of punters and bookies, rather than fans and the well-being of players.  Punters may soon test clubs in court for providing false information.  The situation is not helped by the requirement that clubs name their teams on Tuesday for a game that might not occur for another six days, but surely it’s a matter of ‘better beware’?

Maintaining the integrity of the NRL has already come at a financial cost owing to the gambling aspect.  The Canterbury Bulldogs’ salary cap rorting debacle of 2004, which saw their points stripped just before the finals, resulted in an out of court settlement with aggrieved gamblers.  In 2006, five punters sued the AFL following ‘sirengate’, whereby the AFL prematurely declared a draw before overturning the result in Fremantle’s favour.  Now the AFL is under scrutiny due to the implications on the betting industry of tanking allegations linked to its controversial drafting system.

Betfair and TAB Sportsbet are also official partners of the AFL, who benefit from an additional revenue stream which has been experiencing a 25% growth rate per year.  AFL legend Leigh Matthews is on record as saying official involvement with gambling is “unhealthy, unsavoury and unfortunate”.  Well known sports betting manager Gerard Daffy believes that most rules will need to be rewritten, with the consumer rights of punters in mind.  Pandering to the needs of the agencies and their clients particularly riles Matthews, though the AFL claims it’s now in a better position to preserve the sanctity of the competition, together with its ‘Integrity Services Manager’.

Notwithstanding the pain inflicted on the mugs in gambling’s thrall, athletes themselves have always demonstrated a propensity to be drawn into the dark side of the punt, whether it’s flushing their hard earned down the drain or being implicated in corruption.  ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, Pete Rose, Lillee & Marsh, Hanse Cronje and Juventus FC represent just a fraction of famed athletes who’ve since dragged their sports through the mud.  Like the bad old days, rather than wonder in awe at how the NRL’s Cowboys defeated the Roosters 32-16, having trailed 0-16 at half time in their final round game this year, the result was the catalyst for a ‘please explain’ from the Victorian Commission for Gambling Regulation.

Boxing and European soccer’s notorious reputations are one thing, but tennis?  Post Davydenko,US Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki’s hamstring mysteriously gave way recently, amid claims her father was overheard telling her to quit before winning.  She was leading 7-5, 5-0.

No sport is immune, no scenario too ludicrous.  Betting syndicates have even directly influenced outcomes, as per the Malaysian group who cut the floodlights at a couple EPL games in 1997.

How much further can professional sports push the good faith of Joe Public?  The common denominators in most major sport scandals have been drugs and betting.  Administrators and governments have expended billions in their attempts to eliminate the former, but the latter enjoys the green light.  Governing bodies such as the AFL and NRL are alert to the threat but more alarmed at the prospect of missing a slice of the action.

IOC President Jacques Rogge has suggested there needs to be a WADA-like surveillance organisation established.  But monitoring, let alone doing anything about the 15,000 online websites, of which 13,000 are illegal, is surely impossible.   Players are being approached and threatened, referees and matches bought.  With big-time outlays of over $100,000, how long before athletes tragically bear the brunt of the criminal element?

The problem is bigger than sports authorities alone can handle.  A united and concerted global effort is required.  Fast.

Jeff Dowsing, May 2009

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