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It is the sheer size of football gambling that gives English football a problem

By Tony Attwood

Way back in 1893 a major scandal broke in the British press concerning the amount of money that the nation was spending on football.
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The St James Gazette ran the story that in England the populace was spending twice as much per year on the game as it was on the royal family.  Outrage followed.   (The story is of interest as it related to a dispute between Royal Arsenal FC and one of its players, and the fall out from the subsequent court case changed the entire system of transfers,  The details have been written up on the Arsenal History Society site.)
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But what I wonder would the 19th century gentlemen of the press make of today’s situation in which gambling on football is not just bigger than what we spend on the Royal Family, but is actually 100 times the size of the income of the ten largest leagues in the world
Now because Untold tends to focus on the issues of match fixing in football from the point of view of Calciopoli (which is to say, the influencing of match outcomes by referees who are paid by clubs to be less than straightforward in games in general, rather than getting them to fix a specific result), that does not mean that match fixing for the purposes of gambling does not exist.
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Indeed when you look at the numbers it would be very odd if match fixing for gambling purposes did not exist.
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According to a BBC report, “The current estimations, which include both the illegal markets and the legal markets, suggest the sports match-betting industry is worth anywhere between $700bn and $1tn (£435bn to £625bn) a year.”
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Now to give some perspective to this the GDP of the UK in 2013 was about $2.6tn.
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And the total turnover of the top ten football leagues in the world (which effectively means Europe) was around $10bn.Put these numbers together and what you get is the perspective I mentioned earlier.

Match betting per year is about 100 times the size of the total income of the ten biggest leagues in the world, and about one third the size of the total UK economy.

Of course these numbers are rough, and the periods measured are slightly different, but you get the idea.   My figures differ a bit from those on the Football is Fixed website but the magnitude we each come up with is about the same.

Let’s just say for the moment that £500bn a year is bet on football.  And then remember that last week everyone was getting worked up about the fact that the Premier League has just sold its UK TV rights for £1.7bn a season.

Even when we add in the TV money awarded for lower league contracts the money spent on gambling on football is about 200 times bigger than the money football earns from TV rights.

The “Football is Fixed” blog comes up with some other fascinating numbers on this.  Try this one for size:

The average betting turnover across the world on a single Big Four Premier League game = £5.0 billion.

So as much money is being spent in gambling on a single Arsenal match than is earned by the whole Premier League across the whole of the new three year deal.

Now I never studied economics at university, although I do my best to keep up, but it seems to me that the general rule of thumb is that where the money is, the power is, and both together have a tendency to lead to corruption.  (I’ll give one example at the end of this piece, but you can of course find many more).

If we were to take supermarkets as an example, I’m told that Tesco has just under 30% of the supermarket share in the UK.  Which allows it to go to its suppliers and say, “You have to pay £10,000 for us to open an account with you”.  (I may have got the amount wrong, but that seems to be the way the supermarket world works).

But of course there are some laws around to restrain Tesco’s power.  They can’t demand that their supplier doesn’t sell to anyone else, for example.  If they got over 30% of supermarket share I think they’d be classified as a monopoly, and other rules would click in.

So Tesco have enormous power and a great influence on the marketplace, but there are a few rules lurking around that attempt to keep them under control and to allow competition (the cornerstone of the EU) to flourish – at least a bit.

But in gambling there is no such regulation.  True, in the UK we have the Gambling Commission.  But the act under which it operates (the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act 2014) only relates of course to businesses in Britain dealing with consumers in Britain.

So around the rest of the world – indeed even in British colonies – different rules apply.  Or no rules apply.  It depends where you are and where you bet.

As we move into this field, things get murky.   Football is Fixed argues that “most bookmaking entities are linked to Offshore Financial Centres guaranteeing tax evasion and money laundering.”

I don’t have any data on this – it is way beyond my area of knowledge, but when one looks at the sheer scale of the money involved, and the fact that in capitalist societies, money is the fundamental power, it would seem odd if there were no corruption.

So the final point of the Football is Fixed article I’ve been reading does seem to make a lot of sense.  The total value of each English football club is less than the betting on just one of their matches – which looks like a recipe for disaster.

Here’s another way of looking at it.  The amount of money placed as bets on an Arsenal match is about 2,500,000 times the amount of money the referee earns from the match.  That too suggests a dangerous scenario.

But of course it is not a problem that cannot be solved.  All one needs to do is have an organisation running the referees which is open in its practices, which publishes figures for referee accuracy which can be backed up by statistics, and which hires enough referees to ensure that no referee gets to ref any one team more than twice in a season.

(There are other things they could do, but three’s enough for starters).   The fact that none of these is done is what makes us suspicious.

But PGMO, the gamblers and the bookies have three things on their side.

First, as Football is Fixed says, “The population at large has a real problem with corruption. There is a propensity to either assume that corruption exists but is acted upon by only a few bad apples or that everything is corrupt and that the only way to determine reality is by conspiracy theories.”

Both are wrong. as the writer says, for “corruption in sport is extensive but not absolute.”

Second, the media has an absolute vested interest in corruption either never being mentioned, or being mentioned only as something that is very small, or is done by funny foreigners who have no influence on the upright British citizenry and the game we invented.

They have this interest because if the nation started to believe in match fixing, then the value of football as a media activity would decline, and all the money they have paid for the rights to cover the matches would be lost.

Third, and I think most alarmingly, we have the notion that match fixing can be recognised through “unusual betting patterns”.  What the figures above show is that there is no such thing as unusual betting patterns.  The sheer scale of betting on each top four Premier League match is so vast that it is, by any normal definition of reality, “unusual”.

It is a bit like watching the appalling sight of a man beating his wife up each day, and then taking action on the day that his attack was so violent the woman ends up in hospital in a coma.  Of course action is needed then, but action was needed every single day up to that point.

What you can’t do here is take a situation as bizarre as the current one, look at the average betting patterns, and then define that as normality and look for changes.  The “normality” you are starting from and defining as your base line is most likely wholly corrupt.

These issues are very pertinent now, in Britain, because it is just becoming clear that not only have banks like HSBC been involved in wholesale collusion in tax avoidance for their customers (which we have known for years – half our economy is now funded by the fines banks pay the government), but also that Revenue and Customs, the organisation that should have been chasing the unpaid tax has not been doing so.  Even though (as the BBC TV programme Panorama showed) they had the documentation that would have enabled them to get money out of at least one prominent politician who paid no tax they have been doing fuck all (to use what is, I understand, the correct terminology in the world of economics).

Somehow the link between wholesale corruption in one sector of British society, does not connect in many people’s minds with the existence of possible corruption elsewhere.  Perhaps because “we are British”.

Of course, as I have said each time in these articles, I can’t prove that there is match fixing going on, but I can say, “given what is happening in English Premier League football – from the strange refereeing decisions that don’t even out, to the way that gambling expenditure is massively above football income – we need the highest level of surveillance, analysis and control over the games.”

But we don’t have it.  All we have is PGMO, a compliant media and the concept of “unusual betting patterns”.

Ah well.

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The books

28 comments to It is the sheer size of football gambling that gives English football a problem

  • nicky

    I’m sure the points you make about match-fixing are important and far-reaching, Tony, but the hundreds of thousands who watch the games every week, are totally unaware of any chicanery going on or the extent of it.
    That doesn’t make the crime

  • nicky

    any the less but I suppose we all take the view that “out of sight is out of mind”.

  • Ben

    Not only that but a few years back we were reading that gambling addiction among footballers was a problem and harder to spot the symptoms then we see lots of sponsors made with betting companies….

  • WalterBroeckx

    Excellent article Tony.

    I would add to this that there are a few football clubs that are owned or heavily sponsored by betting companies. An even bigger recipe for possible disaster.

  • kreameh

    good piece, gives football a brain

  • Abhishek Kumar

    I follow “Football is Fixed” on twitter. Once I asked him about opinion over Arsenal and they replied that Arsenal is one of the very few clubs not involved in fixing matches..

    It maybe wrong but looking at the media and ref behaviour towards Arsenal, I think it seems really possible

  • Pete

    If you read Football is Fixed for too long you get so utterly depressed that you feel like jacking in your football supporting.

    I don’t think there is much doubt that many unsavoury activities are associated with English football. But what is almost worse is the complete conspiracy of silence around it.

    To expand on one of Tony’s points re PGMO, a very simple step they could take would be to increase the salaries of the officials. If this was coupled with objective performance monitoring and transparent appointments to/demotions from the select list then there would be a much more powerful incentive for referees to up their performances and reduce their biases.

  • porter

    It’s no stretch of the imagination to see the amounts of money and the possibility of coercion or just plain corruption exists . However who is likely to investigate it ? Certainly no-one with an interest . How long have we looked at the way FiFa and eufa hold their draws and the F.A a load of balls hot and cold ? maybe . The sponsors need a big game every round , just imagine the lack of general interest had we drawn Reading , United drawn WBA or Villa and Gerrard got Blackburn , a much harder sell for television.

  • Mark

    Gambling interests could also benefit from Calciopoli. If the gambling interests know that refs will exert a particular kind of influence in the game that might be enough to make a lot of bets pay off.

    Is anybody able to look into Riley’s finances or the finances of other refs? Is there any transparency the protects them from suspicion or from temptation? If I understand most of the refs are part time and the pay is fairly low. So the temptation to get a bit more could easily arise. But if they have no system of declaring assets, then how can it be proved that they milked the system with a few fouls called here and there or a few fouls uncalled here and there?

    That the PGMO pays the refs not to talk after retirement is also very suspicious. I would rather they be paid better now and coupled with transparent performance monitoring like Pete says.

  • GoingGoingGooner

    The ancient Olympic games were dogged with problems of match fixing. A league with no match fixing would very much be an historical aberration. Where there is money, people will want it.

  • Billionaire owners and ‘mercenary players’ (who fix a league by being benched instead of making a league competitive) suggest there can be ‘mercenary referees’. But the former kind of fixing is according to the rules. The question is whether refs can fix a match ‘within the rules’.

  • Goonermikey

    Two groups of very rich people. One lot give me pleasure and the others live in castles which we pay before if they set fire to them.

    How did the royal family get into office anyway? I don’t remember voting for them……so at least it’s my choice if I spend my money on football.

  • Mandy Dodd

    Yes FIF can be depressing, but should you choose to believe their stuff, they offer hope . A recent article reiterated it would take only one miffed insider an offer he cannot refuse to take the whole thing down, he seems convinced it will happen as well

  • Gord

    2007 Champion’s League game being investigated for being fixed.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/31511514

    Lazio vs Dinamo Bucharest

  • Mandy Dodd

    Chelsea looked to get the rub of the green…..again, PSG denied a surefire pen. Yet Jose will still moan about injustice

  • Jerry

    Mandy, I agree, and thought the same when watching the game as well. I thought Cavani looked pretty good for PSG as well today.

  • AL

    Yes, cynical foul by Ramirez. How the ref ‘missed’ that I’ll never know. The amount of mistakes is starting to get depressing now. also heard the BBC pundits voted rooney man of the match yesterday after his diving. Shocking.

  • Mandy Dodd

    Well, the champions league is sponsored by Gazprom, Chelsea’s owner apparently once had an interest…..some would say he still does, but who am I to say.
    The only thing that will stop this is a video ref, used in every major sport, except the one run by Blatter, Platini et al, wonder why that is.
    The fact is , football is fixed, to quote the blogger arsenal have nothing to do with the criminality, and pay for it . But it will be bought down, by the very things that created it, jealousy and greed.

  • gouresh

    Since we are discussing gambling, then what are the predictions for the ref for the game against manure? Mike Dean?

  • WalterBroeckx

    Why not Gouresh.
    You can read the answer to this in the next days/hours (depending on Tony) 😉 Some remarkable stuff about Dean.

  • Pete

    Walter – There is MORE about Dean?! Good grief – can things get any worse?

    As for the MU ref – was thinking that Riley himself might like to come out of retirement for that one…

    The only ref who I would have any faith in at all for this game is Clattenburg. But I suspect MU have blacklisted him – at least for home matches – following his series of recent penalties against them.

  • Pete

    Who is our ref for Palace by the way?

  • WalterBroeckx

    Pete, it is Mark Clattenburg for the next match

  • para

    Fact is, all teams and when i say all, i mean all, do these practices, it is called using the rules of the game to win the game. For instance, if there is a 80-20 chance of getting away with it, players do it, hell i’d even say 50-50 chance. This is because the rules are not absolute.

    Diving has actually now become like the deliberate foul to allow one’s players to get back in position. It is classed as “taking one for the team” if it goes wrong else seen as necessary or making sure one wins by all means(depending on who it is).

    Retaliation is also a feature in all teams. Say a player downs our player, once or twice and the ref does nothing, or even if he punishes, another player from my team downs that player, or another player from the opposition. I’ve seen it many a time during matches, it is all part of the modern game now.

    Players get away with it because the rules are too flexible, sometimes i think the limited rules are only there to stop outright war, especially after watching some games.

  • finsbury

    How does gamesmanship being a part of sport even attempt to rationalise the incongruous ownership of one or two PL clubs (take a guess!) by betting companies?

    It’s an absurd circumstance and no amount of circumnavigation will help anyone to skip past that conflict of interest, or the big white Oliphaunt*

    *The sweet dear FA’s home, which only cost an unknown or extortionate sum to build – not bad for a football stadium that didn’t have a pitch included in the contract, unlike other stadiums I can think of.

  • finsbury

    FIF is an interesting blog.
    I don’t always understand his thoughts on the football.

    e.g.:

    The writer was convinced that Theo Walcott was no good. I guess he’s never watched the likes of Townsend, Lennon, Johnston etc…Wally is the best English player in that role in his age group. No doubt about, never has been.

  • Pat

    Thanks for the link, finsbury. Very enjoyable.