HOW GAMBLING RUINED SPORT

Posted on December 2, 2012


With the sports betting industry on an ever upward trend, it’s abundantly clear that placing our hard-earned cash on the predicted performances of fellow humans worries few of us – despite the past decade of sport producing a plethora of match-fixing allegations and scandals, and an ever diminishing distance between sports bodies and betting organisations.

Written by Sean Fagan
[Dec 2009 for Inside Sport]

My grandfather always told me “Never you lay a cent on anything that talks.” Along with everyone else who grew up in the 1920s and ‘30s, he swore by that punting rule. For him, it was all horses and dogs.

Hard lessons had been learned in the decades either side of 1900, swearing everyone but mug punters away from betting on athletes and sports teams. It’s difficult to imagine today, but these scandals shook the public’s confidence so deeply, that it brought down some of the most popular sports of the time, and badly damaged the reputations of others.

Salient lessons were eventually learned by sports bodies, but more often than not it had come through the pains and scars of scandal and bad publicity. That’s not to say that it was sport’s fault though – no sport was invented as a vehicle for bookies and gambling.

But sport naturally stirs emotions, and everyone reckons himself an expert on what the outcome will be. As it had been since the time of the Romans and other ancient civilizations, sporting contests were wagered upon between man and man, and little harm was done.

However, the rise of the bookmaker in the 19th century, coinciding with the rapid spread of leisure sports throughout the English speaking world, made gambling on sports the new rage. Some have argued, with sound reason, that the presence of betting put more heat into arguments over rules during sporting contests, forcing the rapid codification and refinement of playing laws.

Bookies required a “field” of competing athletes on which to offer the odds of winning to prospective punters, and to give himself his chance to profit from his clients. By the 1870s “the bawlers of the odds” had followed the booming crowds, well and truly invading the world of the professional forms of cycling, pedestrianism (foot-racing and sprints) and sculling (rowing). The bookmaker used his pencil and pocketed his cash as if he were on a racecourse, shouting out the odds and acceptances amongst the gathered spectators.

For the average man, and many women, the presence of the bookies at the ground gave added spice. While the rich were able to use their business acumen and knowledge to speculate on the Stock Exchange in the hope of turning a profit, others saw no difference in being permitted to bet using their sporting insight to make financial gains.

The churches and social moralists lumped betting and gambling together, but they were different forms of gaming. A writer to The Argus in Melbourne in 1880 spoke for many Australians when he argued: “I consider it perfectly justifiable, from the most rigid moral standpoint, for anyone to back his judgment in a horse race or foot race, or a cricket match or rowing match, and to stake money by betting on the result, but I think it immoral to ‘gamble’ by throwing the dice or playing hazard, where the result depends entirely on chance or luck.”

“Betting” requires the utilisation of skill, analysis and judgment, whereas “gambling” was merely tossing your money at a game of chance, sweeps, lotteries or even a church raffle. Still, whether betting or gambling, on the track, at the sports oval or at the Stock Exchange, it all eventually ended at the “poorhouse” if you indulged beyond your means.

The experience of the track and the betting-ring though gave sports administrators cause for concern. Many predicted that the arrival of bookies into the proximity of a sport was a sure sign that trouble lay ahead.

Thomas Hughes, the author of Tom Brown’s School Days in the 1850s, a book which lauded Muscular Christianity and the moral lessons taught at Rugby Schoool, unhesitatingly declared in the British House of Commons that “The members of the betting-ring are chiefly some of the greatest scoundrels unhung.”

It was a view seemingly confirmed at the Melbourne Cricket Ground when The Argus observed that “It is curious that the first cycling meeting in which the [betting] ring made its appearance was associated with rumours of the performers not showing their true form.”

Cycling meetings across Australia soon moved to early evenings under lights, with particular popularity at the Sydney Cricket Ground, back when the hallowed ground had a cycle track around the perimeter of the oval.

It’s hard to confirm now, but Sportsman, writing in 1899, suggested that “I only heard the other day that the reason why cycling races by electric light are becoming so popular is because competitors are unable to cheat the public to the same extent as they are in broad daylight. Men who study these things say that it is not so easy for the competitors to watch each other at night and so play their give-and-take game. Although I have not thought deeply of this aspect of dimly-lighted cycling, it appears to me that sportsmen generally are becoming so deceptive.”

Not that racing at night addressed all of cycling’s ills – the “pirates of the pedal” still got their spoils, though ultimately getting their comeuppance too.

The Star wrote of “A case may be quoted illustrating how betting breeds dishonesty amongst the riders. At one of the principal cycle meetings in Australia some years ago it is alleged that a competitor conceived an idea of making a big haul.”

“One fine morning he sent five of his friends to see five different bookmakers and secure the market odds on himself at thousands. The trick was done, and the wagers all booked before the bookmakers had time to collaborate and shorten the odds. The ringleader thus had £5000 to work upon.”

“This was to be divided up between these who were considered likely winners, according to their respective merits. Thus one man received £400, another £300, and so on. The arrangements were so complete on the track that the scheme came off without a hitch. The bookmakers were fleeced of a very large sum, as those in. the know had early in the day booked wagers at a good price. One rider who received £300 for losing the race, it is said, also wagered £300 to £20 about the ringleader, and thus cleared £600.”

The “Sydney Thousand” was once the world’s richest cycling race. Using a handicap start to level the field, it pulled riders from as far as away as the USA, and night-time crowds to the SCG of well over 40,000 – more than 75 years before the “innovation” of night cricket under lights.

Cycling fans didn’t seem too bothered by the collusions and secret result tinkering that was going on behind the scenes. The Australasian summed up the position with particular clarity: “Cycling is a pretty sport, and the public likes pace. That the amateur [cycling] athletes do not draw [crowds] we saw in Melbourne lately – the public know all the men are trying, but the sport is too slow. They prefer dubious cycling with the machines going at the rate of 1 min. 50 sec. to the mile.”

Everyone though got a huge shock at the 1904 “Sydney Thousand” when in the final lap the race favourite was deliberately blocked in by “teaming” from two other riders, preventing him from getting to the lead. In the aftermath, it was found seven of the 11 riders were involved, and they were each disqualified for up to three years.

The newspapers and the public supported the severity of the punishments, but it had come too late to save the sport. Earlier opportunities to sanction riders for their involvement with book-makers in race-fixing and betting had seen cycling authorities impose minimal bans, and then reduce or overturn them on appeal. There was no deterrent to others contemplating similar clandestine plots. Due to the scale of the 1904 scandal, the public lost all confidence in professional cycling, and within a few years the sport faded away.

Professional sculling (rowing) had met a similar fate a decade earlier. It was once Sydney’s biggest attended spectator sport, but was dependent upon its relationship with betting syndicates for its financial viability.

During the 1870s/80s, rowing championships on the Parramatta River attracted crowds well over a 100,000 to watch men like Bill Beach and Edward Trickett. Match races between two scullers outstripped cricket, boxing and horseracing for interest, while football – of all varieties – was merely a winter pastime on the open fields of Moore Park outside the SCG.

The money involved in rowing was enormous. Our national bard, Banjo Paterson, was himself bitten by the sculling bug at the time, recalled: “It cost £500 to boat and train a man properly in a match for £200.” A few hundred pounds was more than enough to build a modest house at that time. According to Paterson, Beach ignited in Sydney “such an orgy of sculling as never was seen in the world before – they flocked to the old river as the gladiators flocked to Rome in the last days of the Empire.”

The investors looked to recover their money from bets and a share of the sculler’s prize-money. Usually the two scullers also had a side bet against each other. Without the combination of superior athletic skill, boat, and the necessary financial backing, it was impossible to mount a challenge. In many cases, the titleholder would refuse to race until “the purse” reached an amount he and his backers were prepared to risk their stake for.

When Trickett went to England in 1876 to challenge for the world professional sculling championship, he arrived in London with not only his own money to bet on his success, but a staggering £10,000 from a Sydney betting syndicate. When the cabled news of Trickett’s victory arrived at 4 am at the gathering of his Sydney backers, the roar of their excitement reputedly woke up all within the neighbouring city blocks.

For the Parramatta River contests, spectators who didn’t want to battle the crowds on the shoreline, or the abundant natural vantage points along the river, paid to obtain a place on numerous paddle-steamers hired to follow the race. The steamers were generally chartered by the financial syndicates and book-makers.

The boats were also a useful means to stymie an out of favour sculler or extend the winning length, depending upon what the desired betting outcome was. Under the pretext of getting in close for a view near the finishing flag, the steamer would cross and re-cross near the sculler, sending out a wash that temporarily stopped or even swamped the tiny craft.

Amongst ongoing doubts about the validity of questionable tactics and certain race results, professional sculling’s biggest blow came in 1889 at the “Grand Aquatic Carnival” in Brisbane. Featuring all the best Australian scullers, including Beach and Henry Searle, the regatta was marred by outright cheating and scandalous betting among the scullers.

Searle and another rower deliberately collided with Beach in a heat to keep him from winning and progressing to the final, while some of the scullers openly admitted that they had laid bets on their opponents to win. The events shook the public’s confidence in the credibility of the sport and many of the men who had financially supported scullers and their boats, walked away, sending professional rowing on a downward spiral.

Pedestrianism too fell into obscurity. By the early 1900s the sprinters worked to a “no betting, no foot-racing” rule, refusing to take part in athletic meets that sought to proceed without the presence of bookies and the chance to back themselves. As with the pro cycling meets, a handicap system was used to produce a race that was difficult to pick a winner.

The only real survivor from the reign of “the peds” is western Victoria’s “Stawell Gift” which began in 1878. Bookmakers were first present in 1881, when J. Rogers won after giving a nine yards start – he took home a £50 prize a very healthy bonus of £200 in bets. The Gift could easily have met its demise in its first decades, but it soon built a reputation of good management by the Stawell Athletic Club that saw it through.

That’s not to suggest the Gift hasn’t had it’s darker moments. By the 1930s the number of bookmakers on site was heading towards 40, and betting was intense. In 1933 Cyril Heath, an unknown runner from Bailieston East in country Victoria, arrived a few days before the race. Word about his talents quickly spread and by the opening heat the punters stood to collect over £5,000 from the bookies if he won the Gift.

Heath easily won the heat but the following morning, while walking through the town’s park, he was set upon by a man attempting to maim him. The young man beat off his attacker. The police arrested the assailant, and put Heath under guard until the race, including having a policeman in his room while he slept. He duly won the race.

Team sports in Australia remained relatively free of betting scandals, simply because it required more than buying-off one man to fix the result. Incidents though did arise with suspicions over numerous rugby league and Australian rules matches throughout their long histories, and during cricket’s early decades.

The most infamous instance in team sport in Australia came in September 1910 when Carlton’s Doug Fraser and Alex Lang were found by the VFL to have accepted bribes from bookies to underperform in club matches. Both were suspended until the end of 1915. On that same night the VFA (the amateur side of Australian rules in Victoria) banned for life Charles Hopkins (North Melbourne) and George Kyme (Brunswick) after having found them “to have conspired in connection with something detrimental to the game.”

Despite those Melbourne bans, there’s no doubt that there was a general reluctance by sporting bodies to take a firm stance against their athletes gambling and having connections to book-makers. To a great extent sports relied on any corrupt tendencies of their players being curbed by condemnation of such behaviour from the church pulpit and newspaper press rooms.

Many inquiries set up by sports themselves to investigate allegations were based upon crisis management, invariably half-hearted, and ended with a firm pronouncement along the lines of “The bribery charge could not be proved and no action was taken.” Nothing more could (nor would) be done.

Clubs and ground owners, including the MCG and SCG, erected dozens of signs warning that betting was not allowed and offenders would be removed from the ground. However, most ignored the signs as they were not backed by law – the police would only become involved if a breach of the peace ensued. It wasn’t until later that the state legislatures began to licence book-makers and keep them confined (well, the legal ones at least) to the race tracks.

Modern sports administrators, particularly in team sports, are faced with an ever widening conundrum of whether to entirely shun business relationships and sponsorship with gambling outlets (as the NFL continues to do), whether to encourage sponsorship and forms of gambling and derive a much needed income stream from it, or to carefully straddle some ever-shifting ground in the middle.

The football codes and cricket are now far more subject to “field” betting instead of simply on the result of the match. With “spread betting” on points margins, and betting on the individual performances of players – from the first try or goal scorer, most runs, most wickets, and so forth. It is here that the temptation for others to seek to influence an individual player arises. It’s far easier to achieve, with far less risk of being caught. If match-fixing is happening, this is the form it is taking.

Many athletes are themselves serious punters – even if they are restricted from betting on their own team, their own sport, many will form a relationship with a book-maker or sports betting agency.

It’s not merely corruption that can cause a player, umpire, club or a sport grief – simply the appearance of something out of the norm (say the Broncos opting not to take a post siren conversion from in the front of  the posts in a NRL semi-final), or even an innocuous kick that sees a points spread covered (say Max Rooke’s post siren goal for Geelong in the AFL Grand Final), is enough to raise doubt in the minds of the public, particularly those who had a punt  – even if it is all within the game’s playing rules. Once that confidence is lost, it may be impossible to win back.

Officials might find more to be gained by welcoming controversy as soon as it arises, using it as an opportunity to demonstrate the sport’s commitment to drive out corruption, making sure it acts as a warning to those contemplating a darker deed later on, while instilling confidence to the public. It would signal that the sport is intent on maintaining its integrity at all costs.

Then again, given the 21st century version of the bookie’s call of the odds now permeates live television coverage of sport, as well as on the “big screen” at grounds, just what “integrity” means to each sport is still an ever-changing beast.

As for the need for governments to establish auditing bodies to keep an eagle-eye on behalf of the public on sports bodies and licensed bookies …Victoria has a pro-active “Commission for Gambling Regulation” – a body which has recently put some heat upon the AFL and NRL. Meanwhile in NSW a spokesman for the Gaming and Racing Minister told The Sydney Morning Herald that: ”If there is any question over the integrity of a sporting match, it is up to the individual governing body to investigate.”

Given the competitions, teams and matches under the various football codes and cricket traverse state boundaries, the role of governments and obligations of sporting bodies is a mish-mash.

What is apparent is simply stating that “tanking” (throwing) matches doesn’t exist in the AFL won’t resolve the concern, nor stop the same calls raising their head in the media in 2010. Not interviewing each of the players in the Roosters-Cowboys game on the basis that no one has presented any evidence of match-fixing won’t strike fear into anyone contemplating shaving points, or something worse, in a NRL game. The ARL or RLIF not publically sanctioning the Kangaroos Jarryd Hayne for freely suggesting to the international press that England would throw their game against the Kiwis leaves the impression that some in the code don’t yet see the mere suggestion of match-fixing as a serious cause for concern and a slight on their character.

As professional cycling and sculling fatally found out, waiting for something cataclysmic to happen before reacting to a growing trend is in itself the biggest gamble any sport can take.

[written Dec 2009 for Inside Sport]

© Copyright – Sean Fagan

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