Taking The Gamble

As another week passes were once again the good name of football is dragged through the dirt, this time, again, by alleged spot fixing, what or who is really to blame?

I’m as guilty, to an extent, of those in question this week: I like a bet. I bet every week on football – English, Scottish, Spanish, Italian, French, Ecuadorian, all over the globe – and most weeks I lose. The difference is, I have only form to influence my decision to bet, not an inside knowledge of what is going to happen in the game (although a dodgy refereeing decision can sometimes be blamed for a loss). My winnings this season, to date, probably equal my outgoings and I have used these to fund a trip to the horse racing at Cheltenham Festival, only to squander the majority of it away – but in a way it has acted as a sort of ‘savings account’ ensuring I didn’t just squander my weekly winnings, if I had any, on further bets – to me this made the racing jolly feel as though it was a free trip.

The markets I bet on are pretty ordinary: teams to win; both teams to score; teams to score and win; and, over/under 2.5 goals – I have never bet on anything as specific as the number of corners or yellow/red cards, and definitely, not something as specific as who will be booked, or concede a corner next. Arguably, to bet on these markets, you do need some sort of inside knowledge, or a lucky hunch at least.

My weekly bets usually have a total stake of less than £10 – an affordable amount, and an amount that keeps me interested in games, particularly when my team are away (just for reference, never bet on your own team – it plays with your mind, and rarely comes off as it is not a sound judgement call). I can imagine, those allegedly involved in the match fixing probe underway at the moment, are receiving a considerable amount more than this to risk exposure. I may also add they are probably receiving a much more handsome monthly wage than I am. A wage they can probably manage just fine on, with a few luxuries thrown in each month, and the hardship they have to injure to receive this: play football every day, undertake a few sponsorship commitments, and possibly a few excursions at the instruction of the club. I think you would agree this is most likely a better day to day job than most people have, particularly given the wage they receive for this. So why the need to risk it all, plus some jail time, to add to this wage?

Premier League, and to a lesser extent, Championship players, receive a very handsome wage packet to play football, and the goal of any player setting out at a young age is to reach the top of the profession and make enough money to be comfortable for life. Don’t get me wrong, in the lower leagues, the wages won’t be as high, but I’d bet (sorry) they are higher than average. Perhaps they have set off on the professional football career path with the goal of reaching the summit, but ended up some way off, on the ascent, nearing the arête – but they still want the riches they aimed for. Perhaps this is why they feel the need to supplement their wage with additional payments to get them to the next pay check? Surely a safer solution would be a credit card.

If it turns out that the players are guilty of taking payments to influence match events for spot fixing purposes, there is no excuse for their actions and they deserve to have the book thrown at them. However, they are not the only ones at fault. Every day, a football match of varying significance from somewhere in the world is shown on the television, and at every advert break, the play is bookended with adverts about the latest betting odds and the latest offers for mobile betting all with the aim of getting you to part with your hard-earned money for a chance to win some more. The football league and Premier League cannot lie blameless for current events: they provide the clubs with finances for showing their games on TV, these finances are sourced from adverts and sponsors from companies who want their business shown during the footage – the money goes full circle, only bookies don’t get to keep hold of it when the outcome is pre-arranged. Bookies pay TV – TV pays clubs – clubs pay players. The only missing link in this chain is those who arrange the spot fixing and approach the players about undertaking the bet-able acts. Given the amount of airtime given to bookmakers during advert breaks it is a surprise it has taken this long for the British game to be subject to a betting/match fixing enquiry/scandal.

Looking at spot fixing in general, it is the betting on a specific act or lack of, during a game – in football it may be bookings, corners or throw ins; in cricket it may be no-balls – the commonality is that they are markets which can be influenced by individuals in certain positions. If I was a bookmaker and someone came in the shop or called to ask for a large amount of money on a certain player to get booked, or a certain team to win the fourth throw-in, alarm bells would ring straight away. A lot of the markets are a minimum of even odds, meaning people who ‘guess’ this right will double their money; for specific people to be booked, you could be looking at similar odds as a first goal scorer.

If I go back to the beginning, I like a bet every week and I like to think I have the same chances as everybody of getting it right, spot fixing changes these rules dramatically. Okay, I only bet on outcomes and goals – key aspects of football matches which are not covered by current allegations – but the fact that a small few have an increased knowledge of what is going to happen does not sit right with me.

Looking at how this can be stopped: people will always be influenced by money and greed, this has and always will happen, and whilst there are markets that can be influenced and people willing to take money to influence games, this will always happen. TV has made football the brilliant spectacle it is today, and without the current money raised by advertisements this could lead to a downfall in the quality of the British leagues, so I don’t think removing them from the broadcasts is the answer. The bookmakers today offer hundreds of markets per game to allow everyone to bet on whatever they want, this is one of their unique selling points, but it is also potentially the key to their downfall. By offering markets which can be influenced, they run the risk of inviting high stakes bets at potentially significant odds, which could ultimately lead to them paying out fortunes – the betting industry is a massive money maker, but it too can only take so many hits. It may be a very simplistic solution but the key may be to limit the number of markets available and eradicate those which can be influenced, and do not (potentially) have a significant baring on the outcome of the game and key match incidents: get rid of betting on throw ins, corners, bookings and off-sides etc.; but keep outcomes, scores, goal scorers, goals etc. There also needs to be an efficient, transparent and reliable task force charged with identifying any individuals who may have potentially broken the betting rules, and the penalties for this must be severe enough to act as a deterrent; players have the money so this is not the only driver for taking part in betting activities, so the consequence has to be at least a significant ban of some sort – otherwise, if the markets being exploited at the minute are removed, those arranging the spot fixing will just work their way up the chain until, god forbid, the match outcome is being arranged and we may as well just go home, most likely, empty handed.