Bookmakers will need to gamble on a change of culture in order to survive
Super Bowl XXIX in January 1995 between the San Francisco 49ers and the San Diego Chargers looked like a lopsided mismatch beforehand and the reality was even worse. From the moment the 49ers scored what was, at the time, the fastest opening touchdown in Super Bowl history, it felt like the longest WWF bout in history, only without the round where they pretend the bad guy is winning.
The only thing that took anyone by surprise was the TV ratings. It was not the headline figure of 83.4 million viewers which was impressive because Americans always switch on to the Super Bowl in their tens of millions. What was remarkable, though, was the number who were still watching the 49ers' 49-26 win four hours later, when the outcome had been a foregone conclusion. The game, inevitably, was the top-rated programme of the week but so many people were still there at the end that the post-game show, a mixture of interviews, analysis and prize-giving, was No 2. It relegated Seinfeld to third.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
It turned out that, as expected, viewers had drifted away steadily throughout the second half - that is, until a sudden, dramatic spike in the audience figures two minutes from the end. It coincided with the Chargers, beaten and brutalised though they were, getting the ball on their own seven-yard line and marching down the field with an air of intent. Millions who had long since lost interest in the game were suddenly very interested indeed.
Why? Because they had put a bet on it. San Diego were 18.5-point underdogs but trailed by 32 points towards the end of the third quarter. As they moved into opposition territory with only seconds left, there was no chance at all that they would beat the 49ers, but a very live chance that they might beat the spread.
It is impossible to say how much was at stake because in 1995 - and until 2018, in fact - betting on sport was illegal in almost all of the 50 states. The annual market on NFL betting as a whole, however, is estimated in the billions, at least 95 per cent of it staked illegally. The law did not stop people gambling on the Super Bowl any more than Prohibition put a stop to drinking.
Making gambling illegal does not make the demand go away. It also does nothing to identify or help the minority of gamblers for whom it proves utterly destructive. Gambling addiction, in the online age in particular, is often a private agony, with few or no outward symptoms to tell family or friends that a sufferer needs help. As a result, the most sensible way to approach it is a legalised regime but also one in which protecting vulnerable gamblers is a key priority.
Which is, by and large, what prevailed in the UK until the catastrophically misguided 2005 Gambling Act pushed the borders of regulation beyond the far horizon. Twenty years ago the executives of major bookmaking firms were generally lifers who had started out in the shops. Many took the long-term view that problem gambling was not only a disaster for the addict but bad for business, too. "I'll make a lot more by taking a bit of your money every month for the next 40 years," one senior bookie told me a few years before the 2005 Act passed, "than I will if I take everything in two months."
Once the borders were pushed back, the rules of the game changed. All businesses push up against their regulatory boundaries - their shareholders tend to hire new chief executives if they don't - and the gambling industry, inevitably, cut loose. Most obviously this took the form of the high fixed-odds betting terminals at £100 a spin, but now that stake limits have been brought under control, attention has turned to what some call the 'gamblification' of football.
Not a moment too soon, many fans will say. The relationship between betting and sport is, they feel, entirely parasitic. If the next Gambling Act in the UK regulates the bookies until the pips squeak, so be it. But that will still not address the demand for betting on football, because it is precisely the attributes of fierce competition, drama and world-class talent which make it such a compelling betting medium. And is betting's relationship with football as thoroughly parasitic as it might seem?
The basis of the Premier League's immense wealth is its media rights, sold to broadcasters and then on to viewers. Manchester City versus Liverpool, of course, is a very easy sell, Norwich versus Bournemouth not so much. But a bet can turn an armchair viewer into a Canaries fan for 90 minutes and boost the audience for lesser matches, while the package prices might rise without the revenue from adverts in the breaks.
So how much more are people willing to pay for de-gamblified football?
Tighter regulation is coming and not before time. But it will come at a cost, for businesses that are competing not only with each other but also with illegal operators, in the UK and abroad. They will need to be forced to do much to address the harm caused by gambling but, unless we are going to ban betting and have done with it, they will also need to promote their brands.
In this context the pitchfork-wielding reaction to last week's discovery that several major online bookies had been streaming FA Cup matches is hardly promising. Bookmakers will never be viewed with much fondness but at the turn of the century they were tolerated as part of the landscape. Twenty years later they are roundly hated and to a large extent they have only themselves to blame. The danger, though, is that, if the current atmosphere around the issue feeds into the next Gambling Act, it could be almost as much of an ill-judged disaster as the last one.
Sunday Indo Sport