Soccer and Gambling: Better In Bed Together?

Online gambling

Nothing goes together like sports and gambling. Occasionally, the consequences of this for the integrity of sport are exposed: whether it’s Pete Rose or Bruce Grobbelaar or Hans Cronje or Matt Le Tissier, a high profile case briefly puts the issue back in the limelight.

And then, inevitably, questions are raised about just how easy it is for sporting authorities, clubs and management to be vigilant about the danger when their own pockets are so often legitimately lined by money made from gambling in the first place.

Soccer in Europe has particularly come to depend on sponsorship from the global explosion in online gambling this past decade, an industry with over three million consumers in the European Union alone.

A recent European Parliament report, completed only after a long and amendment-ridden debate, warned that “match fixing is as old as sporting matches, but new technology opens up new risks for fraud alongside the positive opportunities it presents.”

The watered-down report, though, did little to actually challenge this threat as the reference to “positive opportunities” gives away: gambling income has of course become a key source of revenue not just for sports teams, but for governments as well. The Remote Gambling Association helpfully provided the EU with some hard figures on this income, stating that “Euro 3.4 billion in gambling income flows yearly to EU sport”, with Clive Hawkswood, the RGA’s chief executive, commenting that “If not more, it must serve to oppose any claims that sports do not profit from the link with gambling or that the amounts they get are minor.”

One country has finally announced some measures with teeth to address the issue, and perhaps it’s no surprise it’s the country described as “the most corrupt country in the football world”: Poland, currently dependent on 50 million Polish zloties ($18.2 million) of sponsorship money from online gambling companies and with a recent history mired in match-fixing scandals. The two may not be linked, but proposed government legislation would forbid such sponsorships and this is being seen as a major threat to the industry across the continent.

This move is to be applauded if only for addressing the ethical question of whether a sport plagued with an underground gambling problem should also be getting an open fix from the industry.

Yet perhaps the answer to the problem in terms of tackling the actual threat of match-fixing is more complex than cutting this link to online gambling and banning the industry outright, a related solution (and already in place in the United States, though under some threat of repeal).

Banning online gambling is not straightforward: driving it further underground and relying on official censorship of the internet is unlikely to weed it out of existence entirely, and raises troublesome ethical questions itself.

And Simon Chadwick raises the more practical issue of whether a regulated online gambling industry embedded into the sport through sponsorship and carefully monitored legal gambling may in fact give it a stake and role to play in cutting out match-fixing “not least because of the way in which they can identify, track and report instances of irregular gambling activity?”

Is legal, regulated online gambling and sponsorship of sport potentially part of the solution in terms of giving the betting industry a stake in keeping gambling and sport clean?  Or does such a relationship actually make it harder for football’s authorities to tackle the issue of gambling openly, when they are so dependent on the industry for income in the first place?

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