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Working with Sportsbooks Could Help Weed Out Cheaters... The Proof is There...By Hartley Henderson

In a previous article I suggested that online betting could help weed out cheaters in many sports. The technology that exists both online and in some land based sportsbooks today allows sportsbooks to monitor not only unusual betting patterns on a game, but also obvious collusion among suspected cheaters and more importantly betting by family members or friends of players, referees or coaches. This type of monitoring can only be done at land-based sportsbooks if a "ticket" has a name associated with it. If the ticket is just handed out as is done at a racetrack, there is no way to monitor the betting the same way as can be done online. Underground with illegal bookies the technology is even worse and suspected cheating only becomes apparent when the police get lucky during busts as happened in the Ted Donaghy case.

My previous article was met with much disdain as many readers argued that even the suggestion that online betting could help sports leagues maintain the integrity of their matches was ridiculous. Not long after writing that article, however, an incident at Betfair helped justify my argument. In an ATP tennis tournament in Poland, Betfair noted unusual betting patterns on a match involving Nikolai Davydenko and Martin Arguello, suggesting match fixing. Davydenko was an overwhelming favourite yet betting on the match started tilting towards Arguello even before the first ball was hit. More notable than that, even after Davydenko won the first set, money continued to come in on Arguello. Eventually Davydenko pulled out with an injury and security at Betfair was immediately on the phone with the ATP with whom they had an agreement to report any suspicious activities. The ATP is now investigating the players and Betfair voided all bets on that particular match. The ATP was more concerned with maintaining the integrity of its matches than with the possible negative public perception that some matches in the league could be fixed. Other sports leagues including the FA, the Jockey Club, the International Cricket Association and several others have entered into agreements with Betfair to help monitor suspicious betting on its games as well. In fact, in 1994 Betfair helped foil a race fixing incident in London that led to the arrest of 16 people including champion jockey Kieren Fallon. Sports leagues in Europe are now looking at signing agreements with other sportsbooks as well to help guarantee the honesty of its games.

Aside from monitoring unusual betting patters, European sportsbooks report when individuals involved in a contest or their family members place bets on games, per league requests. The only stipulation among many leagues is that individuals involved in the contest shouldn't bet on that particular game. The message is clear as day. European sports leagues understand that people will bet on their games, legally or illegally. They also understand that by working with the companies taking the bets they can guarantee the legitimacy of games by using modern technology to track any suspicious betting activity. On the other side of the coin, the sportsbooks are only too happy to work with the sports leagues since fixed games not only cut into their margins, but also hurt the industry by making bettors suspicious. Consequently these types of agreements between league and book are a win-win situation.

In the United States, however, the exact opposite is true. Sports leagues see books as the enemy. Whether those sportsbooks are located offshore or in Nevada (the only state currently allowed to take sports bets), the sports leagues consider them to be part of the problem rather than a possible solution. In their opinion, if gambling were made illegal then all game fixing would disappear. In fact the leagues are so paranoid about betting that many leagues have made it a requirement that all betting on their league must be 100 percent illegal in the state or province where a team operates, or consequently a city would not be considered for a team. The NBA and MLB have considered Las Vegas numerous times for a team, but only with the stipulation that they suspend betting on all league games in the state. Needless to say, Nevada is not anxious to give up this revenue source and the city is still on the outside looking in. And in Ontario the Toronto Raptors actually had to pay the Ontario Government millions of dollars as compensation to withdraw NBA betting from its Sports Select lottery in order to land the team. In fact the Raptors are still paying the government to this day.

The flaw in the logic of the sports leagues is that they somehow believe that most betting is done offshore or in Nevada, but in reality most betting is done illegally underground. The betting that led to Donaghy's arrest was not made in Las Vegas or in Antigua, but rather with mobsters. It is important to note that Britain had a similar problem with illegal bookmaking in the early to mid 1900s, so in 1961 to try and combat the problem they introduced the betting act that legalized sports betting. This caused many underground figures to emerge from their hidden dens and set up shop, essentially killing the British underground sports betting industry. For a while the sports betting industry in Britain did have issues as many of these underground figures weren't the most honest people when running land based sportsbooks, but in time, all books had to be licensed and most of the shady characters left the British sports betting industry altogether. After all, as British citizens could legally place bets with numerous land-based sportsbooks, what possible reason would they have to bet underground?

That of course leads to another reason why online sportsbooks should be legalized in the United States - transparency. Without question most Americans still gamble illegally because the other options aren't realistic for them. Very few live close to Las Vegas, hence making a trek out there to bet isn't an option. And as far as offshore sportsbooks go, the limitations of getting money to them, the negative statements about them made by their own government and the actions taken against companies like PayPal and NETeller have deterred most people from signing up. If, however, the government and sports leagues endorsed online betting it is highly likely that the same thing that happened in Britain would happen in America. Many of the larger underground bookies would likely try to set up shop online, and more importantly, safe from concerns about their money being seized and comfortable in the knowledge their deposits are safe, most American sports bettors would almost certainly come out from their illegal betting hideouts and place bets online where everyone can monitor all sports betting that is going on. This would severely hinder the underground sports betting industry which in turn would make all sports wagers open for authorities, leagues and the sportsbooks to monitor. Consequently, schemes such as what Donaghy pulled off would be made much more difficult to accomplish since the current monitoring software would catch the abnormalities both in terms of betting and the fact that spreads for his games were being decided too often by very few points late in the game.

Unfortunately, all these suggestions are likely irrelevant anyway since U.S. based sports leagues as well as the U.S. government are more concerned with optics than they are with reality. Many of the leagues seem to feel that what the public doesn't know won't hurt them, and that perception is the most important thing. It's not surprising that when MLB found out that Mark McGwire was using a type of steroid by his own admission, they did not expel the first baseman. Similarly, even with all the suspicion surrounding Barry Bonds, Major League baseball has chosen to let him play rather than looking seriously into the issue and trying to prove if he is a cheater. Clearly in their view "the harm" to the sport would be so great if Barry Bonds was found to have used illegal drugs that they are prepared to simply pretend that there is not enough proof, and will thus continue to welcome Barry Bonds with open arms. On the other hand, they still have not reconciled with Pete Rose because, by obvious deduction, they consider what Pete Rose did (betting on baseball and his own team - there was never any proof whatsoever he bet against the Reds), to be a more heinous crime than possible steroids cheating by its players. Ironically, if Pete Rose had lived in a time where online sports betting was available, and if Rose had bet legally online in a way that I proposed, Major League baseball by way of agreements similar to what Betfair has with their leagues, would have been notified about Rose's conduct.

So why are the leagues so opposed to working with legal establishments in Nevada which are perfectly legal by all U.S. measures, rather than working with them to try and catch any cheating? The answer seems to be power and perception. In the late 1990s amid the discovery of fixed college basketball games, the NCAA's choice was to try and appeal to the federal government to have Nevada casinos stop accepting bets on its games. Even when the Nevada Gaming Board pointed out that they could help immensely with pinpointing cheating, the NCAA met the suggestion with disdain. So if leagues won't work with brick and mortar sportsbooks based in the United States that have taken bets for decades, certainly they won't work with online sportsbooks, even if those books can help ensure the integrity of games. It seems the leagues would rather hide their head in the sands and pretend that it will all go away if by some miracle Nevada and offshore betting closed down. That belief of course also ignores the fact that sports fixing long predates betting in Nevada and certainly the internet.

To sum up, it's time for the U.S. sports leagues and the government to realize something - people bet, especially on sports. It dates back to the time when sport was invented, and it will continue indefinitely. Australia has decided to try and block online gambling for everything BUT sports. They realize that whatever they do people will bet in Australia on sports legally or illegally. Consequently they prefer that sports betting is out in the open. Politicians in the U.S., on the other hand, are taking the opposite approach and are trying to devise possible ways to legalize online poker and casinos while keeping sports betting illegal. In Europe and particularly Britain and Austria, sports leagues have started working with online sportsbooks to help them monitor their games. The result has been a huge success and various cheating incidents have been foiled, thanks to Befair. And throughout the rest of Europe, the European Betting and Gaming Commission has been set up to ensure the legitimacy of games and is working with various sportsbooks to help their cause. Members so far include Bwin, Expekt, Unibet, Interwetten and 3 others. And the membership is expected to mushroom. The philosophy in Europe seems to be "if you can't beat them, then join them." Unfortunately the same can't be said for the American Sports Leagues and their government. The philosophy with them seems to be "if you can't beat them, then crush them by any means possible." Unfortunately that way of thinking just drives more and more people underground and the number of suspicious activities consequently skyrockets.

It's a real shame that the U.S. can't see the obvious as Europe and Australia have in relation to sports betting. But I suppose if optics are more important that reality, nothing will ever change.

Hartley Henderson

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