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|Court ruling gives sport hope of putting squeeze on bookies
| As four Accrington
Stanley players charged by the Football Association with betting on a match in
which they were involved awaited the outcome of their appeal, a delegation of
leading sports figures was meeting the sports minister, Gerry Sutcliffe, to set
the scene for a debate that could fundamentally alter the sports betting
landscape and have major ramifications for bookmakers and governing bodies.
The two events are linked because
the coalition of bodies, which included representatives from the England and
Wales Cricket Board, the Rugby Football Union and the FA, are pushing for
stringent new regulations designed to clamp down on the threat of match-fixing.
In a separate, related, move they also hope to prove that bookmakers should be
forced to pay a "betting right" to offer odds on their sport, claiming that a
large proportion of this revenue could be channelled into the ongoing fight
The high-stakes arguments will be played out
against the backdrop of a public debate about the integrity of sport, from
match-fixing claims in tennis and cricket to examples of foul play in rugby
union and Formula One, that have become more and more visible over the past
Despite the protestations
of bookies, including claims that the moves proposed by the sports are ill
thought out and impossible to enforce, Sutcliffe is convinced that, at the very
least, there needs to be a serious look at the whole area. The debate has
rumbled for years but has gained in volume in the past year as sporting bodies
have stepped up their lobbying efforts.
They have been further
encouraged by events on the continent where France has introduced a licensing
and levy system and where a ruling in the European Court of Justice is being
viewed as giving national governments more leeway to regulate gambling. But the
battle in France is only just beginning with the government's regime of heavy
regulation and high taxes likely to be challenged by bookmakers.
of the sensitivities and keen to balance the interests of the gambling industry
and the sports lobby, Sutcliffe has sought to separate issues of integrity from
the possibility of regulating overseas operators and finding new revenue
streams to combat corruption.
On the former he has convened a panel
chaired by former Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry and including a range of
experts in the field and representatives from bookmakers and sport. Unveiling
the panel in June, ironically just as claims of match fixing at Wimbledon hit
the headlines, he said: "The possible threat to the integrity of sport remains
an ever-present and complex problem requiring multi-agency solutions." The
panel will shortly meet for the second time and expects to report by the end of
On the latter, he has set in motion a wide ranging review to
look at issues "including securing fair contributions from overseas licensed
operators towards the costs of regulation" and promising to "look at the
existing controls that apply to operators licensed overseas to ensure the
rigorous consumer protections introduced by the Gambling Act continue to be
The subsequent decision by the two biggest high street
bookmakers in Britain, William Hill and Ladbrokes, to move their online
operations offshore has significantly raised the stakes. As the gambling
industry has changed beyond recognition over the past decade, with the
phenomenal success of websites such as Betfair that allow punters to lay as
well as place bets and the explosion in the range and type of bets available
from all operators based at home or abroad, sports governing bodies argue that
the potential for match fixing has also soared.
Bookmakers argue that
they already share information on suspicious betting patterns and will continue
to do so. Many of the most recent allegations have come to light, they say,
because of improved transparency. What really riles them is any attempt to link
integrity issues to the idea that they should fund the fight against
corruption. One senior executive at a leading bookmaker said: "It's those that
talk about integrity that have no integrity." They believe the argument is an
attempt to grab a slice of revenue that sport has been eyeing jealously for
"In the real world, there are an estimated 4,000 gambling sites
on the web. Are they genuinely arguing that Gerry Sutcliffe can control 4,000
websites when Interpol is failing to curb child pornography on the web? We need
to concentrate on what we can control," said Betfair managing director, Mark
Davies, pointing to the millions poured in through sponsorship.
want those companies to disappear because you are charging them a fee and you
want to increase their costs to make it less likely they want to work with you,
then fine, start putting restrictions on us about what we can or can't do. I
think they're after something for nothing."
But the sports, facing up
to a challenge some administrators have come to believe is bigger than doping,
are convinced that their arguments are gaining ground.