As bookmakers face criticism for taking wagers on off-field events that could be subject to manipulation, is it time to wind down these types of markets?
In the good old pre-pandemic days, if you ventured into a pub for a swift half you would inevitably hear men (and indeed women) talking about football transfers. It’s part of the mystique of football, being able to call those transfers before they happen and demonstrating your superior knowledge to your friends, but in a collegiate, friendly way.
The bi-annual transfer window, an important time for the clubs, has become a broadcast staple, with Sky Sports’ deadline day coverage regularly attracting record viewers. Responding to this emerging sub-strata of the game, sports betting operators, independent of the usual match-based markets, began offering odds on football’s ups and downs, including next-manager markets. Then, it expanded into the comings and goings of transfers and offering up odds on players’ next clubs.
Insider knowledge can go a long way in winning a player transfer bet, but as the sphere of knowledge has increased in size, so have the issues in offering a market which could be so easily manipulated. Nowhere is this more illustrated than in the recent case of footballer Kieran Trippier, who was banned for 10 weeks by the FA after he told a friend to “lump on” a bet concerning his summer 2019 transfer from Tottenham to Atlético Madrid.
Abelson Odds senior trader Jeevan Jeyaratnam shares his take on the scandal: “The Trippier example saw 16 bets placed in total. The Athletic reported that the seventh wager was £20 at 4/1, [while] subsequent bets were placed at odds as short as 1/6. At 4/1 the operator gave the deal a 20% chance of occurring, at 1/6 the implied chance is a whopping 86% – hardly improbable and begs the question why the market was still active.”
He adds: “With small stakes and odds as low as these, the whole incident would not have dealt a financial body blow to the operator and given the furore since the investigation became public knowledge, are we perhaps pushing operators to non-reporting of suspicious betting patterns? It would be fairly easy for an operator to feign ignorance over wagers like this. The ramifications of reporting an incident may outweigh the risk of not saying anything.
“While I’m not suggesting in any way that any UK-licensed operator would forgo its duties to report suspicious behaviour, it certainly has the potential to leave the UKGC/operator door ajar rather than fully open and transparent,” Jeyaratnam further explained.
From an operator perspective, the risk of reputational damage is obvious, but with posts on Twitter and Instagram potentially influencing betting markets, operators could face similar scandals in the future. For Betway’s Alan Alger, the problem is one of legislation, in that the FA’s blanket ban on betting by players prevents any sort of transfer talk among players and their immediate peers. “What we found with the transfer betting ban is that it was preventing players, in some cases, being able to talk to their friends about things you probably would talk to your friends about, like moving clubs and things like that,” he explains.
“The specifics of the most recent case suggests it was a little more than someone just saying to their mates where they were going and what they were doing. There was a clear incitement. However, I’m sure there are plenty of cases where players have genuinely wanted to discuss that with family members, or family members have gone into work and said, ‘My brother-in-law is now moving to this club’ but doing so raises many difficulties for those players,” he adds.
Betway’s solution was a bold one: remove all transfer betting, managerial vacancies and so-called sack-race markets on the first coach in a particular league to be shown the door, despite the obvious financial implications. “We’ll take a financial hit on that of course but we see the trade off in that is being responsible, guiding punters to other markets that are based on what actually happens on the pitch and we think that’s probably the right trade off to make,” Alger explains.
Expanding on the financial loss, Alger defends the decision against claims by some on social media that Betway only withdrew the markets because they ceased to be profitable for the privately-owned operator. “They were always profitable, but it was only ever about 2% of the total bets we took on football markets,” he adds. It was a decision that drew equal parts consternation and praise from bettors alike.
Bookmakers are being caught between a rock and the proverbial hard place, in that they must differentiate to be heard, but with that differentiation comes risks, as Propus Partners’ Mark Israney explains: “A point that tends to be understood within the industry, but generally not believed by those outside of it, is that these markets are not offered to generate immediate revenue – it’s not a case of the greedy bookmakers stealing off the uninformed punters.
Instead, the markets are there purely for PR purposes, to allow brands to have something even slightly different to say on Twitter, or to be quoted in tabloid gossip.”
“The severity of the FOBT restrictions of recent times acted as a trigger for the industry to start self-governing. If we don’t police ourselves, the alternative is likely to be far more draconian” – Jeevan Jeyaratnam, Abelson Odds
Israney went on to say that promoting your own brand while damaging the industry is not sustainable and that operators should stop offering these markets and find other points of differentiation.
A recent example of how having these sorts of markets can damage an operator’s reputation is Sky Bet’s Commentator Bingo, a market offered on the Manchester United versus Liverpool game which rewarded punters if certain phrases were mentioned by those commentating on the action. Many questioned Sky Bet’s relationship with its former broadcasting partner Sky and the (highly unlikely) potential for abuse of this market, taking to Twitter to voice their concerns, with MP and vocal gambling industry critic Carolyn Harris even getting involved.
Indeed, the furore proved too much for Sky Bet and the Flutter-owned brand pulled the market, but by then the PR battle was lost. So, what do bookmakers do? How can today’s sports betting firm be distinct from its rivals if not with these kinds of specialist markets? Do we move to a simpler streamlined system where every operator offers the same markets, with no distinctions, save on the odds offered?
For Jeyaratnam, the need for tighter controls on controversial specialised sports betting markets has its parallel in the fixed odds betting terminals row, as he explains: “There is little doubt that the spotlight has been thrust on gambling operators in recent years and any company with sufficient foresight should be looking to minimise stories with negative sentiment.
“The severity of the FOBT restrictions of recent times acted as a trigger for the industry to start self-governing. If we don’t police ourselves, the alternative is likely to be far more draconian. With that thought in mind, I’m sure many operators are reviewing policies surrounding this type of wager.”
The Abelson Odds senior trader concludes that the formation of a stronger industry-governed watchdog to push back when operators overstep the mark is much needed. Expanding on who would trigger such a period of self-regulation, Jeyaratnam points to the Betting & Gaming Council’s (BGC) self-imposed ‘whistle-to-whistle’ advertising ban as a potential model for a similar agreement relating to specialised markets.
Betting is a varied and interesting pastime for many sports fans in the UK, and indeed internationally, and what the UK market does could serve as a model for worldwide markets, so it’s important we get it right. With its broad reach, the BGC could serve as a good vehicle for tighter controls, but with a gambling act review in the works, the time to self-regulate may be running out for the industry.