Tuesday 19 June 2018

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Eamonn Sweeney: Betting on a sporting event doesn't make it 'matter more', it diminishes it

‘If stringent regulation does come in the bookies will only have themselves to blame.’ Photo: Gerry Mooney
‘If stringent regulation does come in the bookies will only have themselves to blame.’ Photo: Gerry Mooney

Eamonn Sweeney

Many moons ago I caused a slight stir in an upstate New York bar by making inquiries about where I might find a bookies so as to place a few bets on the Breeders' Cup.

What I had in mind was the Irish meaning of the term, a slightly decrepit building inhabited by men with pasty complexions and haunted looks in their eyes. But the word meant something different in America where the ban on sports gambling meant a 'bookie' was a facilitator of illegal gambling, an essentially criminal figure.

That's what it used to mean. Because last week's decision by the US Supreme Court to allow states to make sports gambling legal if they wish will undoubtedly open the floodgates and lead to the kind of set-up we have here. Small wonder that share prices for the big bookmaking firms soared as Paddy Power et al observed the American market with the beady-eyed glee of a vulture spotting a thirsty trekker staggering through a desert with no oasis.

The court's decision merely confirms the impression that we are currently living through sport's Age of Gambling. Gambling is omnipresent, from the stream of bookies ads during Sky Sports commercial breaks, to the sponsorship of RTé's racing coverage by BoyleSports to the news stories about the latest 'fun bets' dreamed up by the crafty lads in Paddy Power, to match previews quoting the odds available, to commentators informing us that such a horse or such a team was trading at such a price in running on Betfair.

Sometimes it almost seems as though big-time sport exists largely in order to facilitate the delivery of bookie ads. These ads don't resemble those from any other business. They have the remorseless and overbearing air of government propaganda broadcasts in a dictatorship. TV advertising can sometimes make you feel like a salesman has invaded your sitting room to try and sell you something. The frenetic huckstering atmosphere of the bookie ad makes you feel like you're being accosted in the street by a guy offering a cheap laptop which will turn out to be two cartons of milk when you get home and open the case.

The purpose of these ads is generally twofold: first to persuade you that gambling is fun, and, secondly to make you believe that, in the words of one slogan, "it matters more when there's money on it." Gambling, like drinking or drug-taking, can be fun. Who'd bother with it otherwise? I enjoy an occasional bet myself. But I'm not the kind of customer the ads are aimed at.

The target is a generation of young men who are being groomed to believe that sport and betting are intertwined and that no sporting occasion is complete unless at some stage in the proceedings you go online to place a wager. That this strategy has been successful is obvious from the ever-increasing amount of these advertisements, from the massive profits of the big bookmaking firms, from the undeniable evidence that gambling is becoming a serious problem among young men and from the occasional spectacular court cases which illustrate just how horribly that problem can play out in someone's life.

I used to adopt a kind of unthinking macho attitude to such tales. "No-one is making anyone gamble. You have to take some individual responsibility." But it's impossible as one commercial paean to the joys of gambling succeeds another to escape the feeling that we're witnessing the relentless targeting of human weakness so that large businesses can make the highest possible profits. We all have our weaknesses and right now the Problem Gambler is under sustained and merciless siege.

The man who probably did most to invent the modern model of bookmaking in Ireland is Stewart Kenny, who co-founded Paddy Power and only stepped down from its board two years ago. A couple of months ago he criticised the company's attitude towards problem gambling and called for mandatory limits to be imposed on the amount of money people can lose online. "If the gambling industry are in any way serious about doing something practical on gambling addiction they should not have any problem with this suggestion," he said. "The present system of voluntary deposit limits simply hasn't worked."

This suggestion has been met by a deafening silence. Seeing Kenny speak out like this you wonder if he may have the same ambivalent feelings about his creation that Victor Frankenstein had about his. The problem is that the modern model of an increased variety of bets on a wider number of events has now been replaced by a post-modern model where the likes of online casinos, the Fixed Odds Betting Terminals which have spread through English bookies' offices like a plague and online betting in general have hugely increased the potential for catastrophic loss.

The British government has just announced plans to cut the maximum stake on FOBTs from £100 to £2 after revelations that in a single year there had been over 233,000 occasions when individual gamblers lost £1,000 or more. Yet this change in the law was fought tooth and nail by the Association of British Bookmakers who have predicted job losses and expressed what could be seen as the perhaps hypocritical worry that the decision would lead gamblers "to alternative forms of gambling where there is less chance of human interaction."

That kind of attitude shows the uselessness of expecting bookmakers to regulate themselves. But will our government do anything? You wonder if there is any political will to enact even the moderate measure proposed by Stewart Kenny.

If stringent regulation does come in the bookies will only have themselves to blame. One thing which jumps out from any story of gambling addiction is their utter lack of curiosity about the source of the extraordinary sums being wagered. This laissez-faire attitude leaves a very sour taste in the mouth when you consider how common it is for bookmakers to refuse the bets of anyone winning large sums on a regular basis.

In an article published last year in The Guardian, an employee of an online bookie explained that, "My job demanded taking advantage of people. We discouraged 'pros' who knew what they were doing while tempting 'mugs' with free bets before bleeding them dry . . . The market is saturated with gambling offers and phoney bonuses that you can never withdraw, because of complex requirements that must be met. Winnings from 'free bets' must be re-staked dozens of times to satisfy the terms and conditions of the offer."

This is the world you don't see in those interminable ads, most of them heavily influenced by Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, where 'The Lads' are all in it together and the bookie is in it with them too. The apparent innovations, the stuff about bets which can suddenly become 'supercharged' or where you can adjust the odds yourself are just there to further the impression that the punter is, despite the financial evidence to the contrary, in control. But if such gimmicks were really to the punter's benefit, bookies wouldn't have come up with them.

The ads sell a lifestyle that doesn't really exist. The few successful punters I've known don't tend to go around in a big gang with their 'mates'. The study of form and pursuit of tips is generally a solitary business and requires a restraint and a discipline not generally present in the would-be high roller.

Many young men really fancy the idea of flinging a large amount of cash into the air with one hand while spraying champagne with the other. If you ask a problem gambler what he's really looking for he probably won't be able to give you a straight answer but at the back of it maybe a vague fantasy involving Vegas, jacuzzis, strip clubs, blondes, limos and the undying respect of guys with tough nicknames. It's the desire to live a kind of gangster lifestyle but without the danger and hard work involved in a career in organised crime.

The hope of getting something for nothing is one of the fundamental human desires. It is also a source of disaster in folk tales from cultures all over the world because deep down we all know it's not really possible.

It's sad to see a generation being sold the idea that sport and gambling are inextricably linked. In reality, they couldn't be more different. Nobody gets anything for nothing in sport. Sport rewards effort. Even at the lowest levels your achievement is your own, it doesn't depend on the turn of a wheel or the skill of a jockey.

At its best sport offers us a glimpse of something higher. Gambling, on the other hand, appeals to the baser side of human nature. Betting on an event doesn't make it 'matter more', it diminishes it. It reduces something fascinating down to the question of whether you can make money from it. Even horse races are much better when you watch to admire the excellence of those involved rather than to track your investment. Talent is always more interesting than money. What a Modigliani looks like will always matter more than what it costs.

Gambling isn't just a waste of money, it's a waste of sport.

 

'Parrott is from Buckingham Street which means he's a member of probably the most marginalised, derided and hard-pressed community in the country'
'Parrott is from Buckingham Street which means he's a member of probably the most marginalised, derided and hard-pressed community in the country'

Geographical spread of under 17 squad shows our sporting map is being redrawn

 

On Monday night, Jimmy Corcoran from Kells was sent off for moving off his line during the penalty shoot-out between Ireland and Holland in the under 17 UEFA championship quarter-final. Aaron McEntee from Shercock had to go in goals but couldn't prevent Holland scoring the winner. Afterwards, Irish captain Nathan Collins from Leixlip was a model of dignity in defeat.

The provenance of those three players prove how Irish football has changed in recent decades. There was a time when the schoolboy international teams were almost entirely made up of Dublin players. When Brian Kerr's under 18s won the European title 20 years ago, the only Irish-born player not from Dublin in the starting line-up was Belfast's Ger Crossley. On the under 16 side the Waterford pair of Jim Goodwin and John O'Shea and Cork's Liam Miller were the exceptions.

Yet on Monday night only four of the 11 starters hailed from Dublin. The other seven came from Nenagh, Ovens, Greystones, Cork, Kells, Shercock and Leixlip. It's eloquent testimony to how much soccer's profile in this country has changed in the past couple of decades.

A broadening of the base like this can only be good for soccer as it has been for rugby. Yet perhaps the most heart-warming story to emerge from the championships is that of Troy Parrott, who, given that he comes from the centre of the city, could hardly be any more Dublin.

Parrott is from Buckingham Street which means he's a member of probably the most marginalised, derided and hard-pressed community in the country, that of the North Inner City, an area which on the rare occasions it figures on the public radar does so in connection with gangland killings, drug addiction and the like.

Wes Hoolahan hails from the same area and when you consider what he's also achieved it makes you sad for all the human potential lost due to the State's apparent unconcern about the problems which have continued to bedevil the heart of the city long after Tony Gregory and the others brought them to public attention.

That Parrott has thrived to such an extent that top English clubs were queuing up for his signature before he joined Spurs, where he's recently been training with the first team, says a great deal about the character of a player who looked as good as anyone on show in the Championships.

When Ireland reached the quarter-finals of the competition last year, it represented our best performance since the age-group changed to under 17 in 2002. Yet progressing to the same stage this year felt a much more meaningful achievement. Last year a 7-0 defeat by Germany in the group stages showed the gap between Ireland and the top teams.

This year the good impression given by Ireland when qualifying with a 100 per cent record was confirmed as they matched the highly-rated Dutch step for step. That the finale seemed so unjust owed a lot to your feeling that had Ireland come through this game they'd have had a great chance of equalling the achievement of 20 years ago.

All the same, a second last-eight spot in two years represents a considerable achievement for manager Colin O'Brien and hopefully the FAI will make sure to hang on to him. It's still baffling that Kerr, one of the finest underage coaches in Europe, was in the wilderness for so many years as we serially underachieved at youth level.

One really encouraging feature of the under 17 performance is that the squad was almost entirely made up of Irish-born players. It's odd to think that down the line, should a player who represented England at this level, as Ciaran Clark for example did in the past, want to play for Ireland he could do one of the lads who wore the green jersey with such distinction in the past couple of weeks out of a cap. It might be defensible on pragmatic grounds, but that doesn't make it alright.

Back home, the schoolboy season has seen a huge achievement by St Kevin's Boys, who reached national finals in the under 12, 13, 14, 15 and under 18 competitions. St Kevin's, who're based in Santry, are one of those great Dublin city clubs who've been producing internationals for donkey's years. Yet a closer look at those competitions reveals that the new more geographically inclusive nature of schoolboy soccer, apparent on Monday night, is also evident at grassroots level.

The under 18 final was won by Waterford's Tramore AFC while the under 13 competition saw a semi-final appearance by Kiltimagh-Knock United which would once have been no-one's idea of a soccer hotbed. Teams from Carlow, Donegal, Cork, Kerry, Galway and Kilkenny also made national semis. The sporting map of Ireland continues to be redrawn. These days a star can come from anywhere.

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