Thursday 30 July ~
Has football betting become a serious problem? There may be reasons to think so – but that doesn't mean that the problem will be addressed. The FA recently delivered a range of stiff punishments to four players found guilty of betting on the outcome of a fixture between Bury and Accrington Stanley in May 2008. Only one of those involved, Jay Harris, played in the match. He received a one-year ban and a £5,500 fine. Although none of the players was charged, the FA’s Regulatory Commission raised "serious concerns" that the outcome of the game was fixed.
Confirming his company's decision, William Hill spokesman Graham Sharpe told the BBC: "If we start to feel all is not well with every game you may well end up with a situation where bookmakers will start to be selective about some of the matches they decide to bet on." The early warning system that bookmakers have in place does seem to have worked well in the Accrington case, with the FA changing the referee and assistants for the fixture at the last minute after being informed of irregular betting patterns, to avoid any suspicion being cast on the original officials. A flurry of speculation regarding a Derby County v Norwich City game last season ended with the FA clearing both clubs of any wrongdoing but the coming campaign is likely to see similar stories crop up. However, that is unlikely to halt the growing popularity of betting on football and the firm acceptance of the gaming industry into the sport.
Once hidden behind the closed doors and frosted windows of the high street, the betting industry is now an increasingly familiar part of the sporting world in general and football in particular. Club websites have a link to an official betting partner, while bookmakers have sponsored teams, competitions and whole leagues such as the Blue Square Premier. This summer, Nottingham Forest and Wolves became the latest clubs to announce such sponsorship deals, with Victor Chandler and Sportingbet respectively. Meanwhile, former professionals and football presenters, such as Jeff Stelling, Chris Kamara and Carlton Palmer, adorn the shop windows of the big betting companies, appear in television adverts and write columns in the racing press.
Until 2000, the Football League's "minimum trebles" rule prevented betting on individual English games unless they were live on television, the presence of the cameras deemed enough of a deterrent to potential match-fixers to allow singles to be placed on a live game. The abolishment of the rule, coupled with the end of the ten per cent betting tax, provided a massive boost to football betting. Today a huge range of English games, including non-League matches, can be bet on individually. An astonishing array of markets at home and abroad is now on offer at the betting shop, at the other end of the phone and online.
As the market increases, so does the competition for business and the battle to generate publicity. Firstly, there is the practice of paying out early, when a bookmaker believes an outcome to be done and dusted and settles all winning bets ahead of the official result. This was made famous by Fred Done's decision to pay out those who had backed Manchester United to win the Premier League in 1998, only for Arsenal to overhaul them. Even if the decision backfires it creates a healthy dose of publicity for the company involved, from a market that has long since stopped attracting bets. Paddy Power generated plenty of coverage for themselves at the start and finish of last season, initially by announcing after Stoke's second game of the campaign (a defeat at Bolton) that they would pay out to anyone who had backed the Potters to be relegated and then by “apologising” through the local newspaper when City defied the pundits by finishing in mid-table.
Secondly, slow news days are often enlivened by stories claiming that a particular manager is under pressure after a bookmaker announces they have slashed their odds or closed the book on him being sacked. Often it can take only a small amount of money to change the odds and yet the story can grow a life of its own as a reaction is sought to the “news”. The only thing that bookmakers won't be offering odds on next season is the number of matches that will be subject to official investigation. Alex Wolstenholme