Betting on sports is almost as old as sports themselves. In the UK, gambling was, until relatively recently, generally associated with horseracing, with the average UK punter having a ‘flutter’ on the Grand National once per year, while other more seasoned gamblers would scour odds in the Racing Post. The emergence of online gambling has changed the landscape completely.
Gambling in the UK is estimated to be worth around £7bn (excluding National Lottery). With any growing industry, there is a danger of black market activity, and as much of today’s gambling takes place online, this threat is amplified. While it would be naive to point the finger of blame solely at foreign parties, most illegal syndicates in the UK, relatively small fry by today’s standards, have been replaced by criminal gangs in China and elsewhere, who run well-organised rackets within the sporting industry. But what are the issues, and what, if anything, can be done about them?
What are the problems and how have they arisen?
It is best to start with Horse Racing. As noted in Fraud and Corruption in Horse Racing, Horse Racing is traditionally more reliant on gambling than other sports, due to the nature of betting which accompanied its rise in popularity. As such, this means the sport will always be vulnerable in one way or another to fraudsters. Traditional forms of corruption include fixing races, doping and even running injured horses. While the industry has (along with gambling companies) been forced to tighten up, the problem will always be ongoing. Only this year the career of a highly promising jockey, Darren Egan, was left in tatters due to revelations he had ridden horses to lose. The once promising apprentice is unlikely to race in the UK again. There is hope within the industry, however, that such sad tales may become history, with the BHA having released an integrity video featuring disgraced jockey Fergal Lynch (now cleared to ride in Britain again). The video aims to show promising jockeys the realities of working with those involved in illegal betting practices. It remains to be seen what impact this will have.
Of course, while the horseracing industry will always face challenges when it comes to tackling gambling corruption, it is far from the only sport tainted by the issue. Around 70% of the estimated $1 trillion gambling market takes place in the football industry and while most illegal practices take place in lower leagues and on a generally small scale, the amounts involved still run into hundreds of millions of pounds. One of the key issues for gamblers is the rise of off-market bookkeepers. Often run by illegal syndicates, they tend to offer better odds than companies like Bet365 or Ladbrokes, making them more attractive but highly unsafe.
Online gambling is increasingly attractive to younger audiences, more accessible, and thereby more dangerous. The issue of corruption in sports betting has evolved from the fixing of races/matches to the increased targeting of vulnerable gamblers. The globalised nature of online gambling also means criminals can run their operations from far away, as evidenced by the scandal which swept the Canadian football league. Much of the match fixing was organised by notorious (now jailed) German-Croat fixer, Ante Sapinal. In such instances, it is hard to pinpoint which country’s authorities is responsible for the crackdown.
The globalised nature of the problem makes for difficult co-operation between countries that have different practices and laws regarding the industry.
Tennis was recently rocked by a scandal leading to allegations that dozens of top players (including grand slam winners) had been involved in match-fixing. One of the problems with investigating such claims is the legal issues involved, the costs and also figuring out who is responsible and to what degree. As with football, players are often simply pawns in a much larger criminal network, with little choice in the matter. It can be difficult for investigators to discover whether a player has been coerced or wilfully corrupted.
So what are the hopes and challenges for the future?
As always, the challenge is rooting out the source. This is more difficult than ever given the globalised nature of corrupt betting practices, but steps are being taken. In 2012, the Sports Betting Integrity Forum was launched in the UK, bringing together lawmakers and law enforcement officials, as well as representatives of gambling and sporting authorities, in order to try and tackle the problem. The forum provides contact details for those who suspect illegal activity to report their suspicions anonymously. While it is too early to say what effect this body will have on ending the problem in the UK, there is hope that in this country at least, things are improving. Nevertheless, as the mobile gambling and online markets continue to soar, the challenges will grow ever more complex, and those involved in fighting the scourge of gambling corruption face huge barriers, both local and international, in monitoring, punishing and preventing corrupt gambling practices.