Sport bookmakers seek safety in numbers against cheating

By Bill Wilson
Business reporter, BBC News

image captionCricket and gambling has dominated the headlines this summer

The recent decision by Pakistan's cricket authorities to suspend the central contracts of three players means one of the summer's biggest sport gambling stories refuses to go away.

Batsman Salman Butt and pace bowlers Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif are under investigation for alleged spot-fixing during Pakistan's tour of England earlier this year.

They remain provisionally suspended from all cricketing activities by the International Cricket Council.

"The allegations around the Pakistan cricket team and their UK visit this summer have been so incendiary that they still remain in the headlines," says Khalid Ali, secretary general of the European Sports Security Association (ESSA).

'Confront challenges'

Brussels-based ESSA was set up by leading online sports book operators in Europe to monitor any irregular betting patterns or possible insider betting from within each sport.

It has signed memorandums of understanding with a number of sports bodies - including FIFA, UEFA, EPFL, the FA, DFB, ATP, ITF and WTA - and has established close relations with the IOC and many other sports regulators.

"Nobody wants to bet on contests whose outcomes they feel are rigged," says Mr Ali, speaking about sports betting.

"The licensed betting industry is determined to confront the challenges head-on."

It was a scandal five years ago which led to the creation of this bookmakers' intelligence operation, one designed to monitor and snuff out suspicious betting patterns.

The body came about in 2005 following a scandal in Germany which saw a referee fixing games - the notorious Hoyzer case.

image captionThe Hoyzer case rocked the sports betting industry

"That was a match-fixing scandal affecting German football matches and named after the referee Robert Hoyzer, who was found guilty of accepting bribes," says Mr Ali.

"It was Odset, the German state-run betting monopoly, that lost millions in euros, as they were unable to track the bets being put on place in Germany on the fixed games.

"But the licensed and regulated online industry, with its electronic audit trails, was untouched by the affair."

Mr Hoyzer was subsequently jailed for his role in the scandal.

Information sharing

Nevertheless, the scandal galvanised ESSA's founding members to try and create a system where the licensed betting sector and sporting authorities could work together "to share information on irregular and suspicious betting".

Essa represents licensed fixed odds bookmakers such as Ladbrokes, Bwin and Unibet, but gambling exchanges are not part of the organisation.

"Most of our members are listed on stock markets, so it is also in their interests to stop bribery, corruption and matchfixing," says Mr Ali.

If there is a scandal, licensed bookmakers can lose money as people stop betting and "the whole industry is tarnished".

The Essa firms have created a central office to share information and security and pass on information to sports organisations free of charge.

"A lot of work has been done in terms of establishing and improving the way that sports and bookmakers communicate and work with one another," says Mr Ali.

'Safety guidelines'

Each Essa member offers odds on an average of 500,000 different bets a year, and each digests and scrutinises the electronic information it receives.

There are early warning systems in place, which he says, makes it difficult for criminals to do crooked things online.

image captionMr Ali (l) and Rick Parry, chair of the UK government panel on tackling sports betting corruption

"Every reputable bookmaker has their own safety guidelines.

"Online is well-regulated, people who come online leave a footprint and lots of details about who they are and where they are," says Mr Ali.

"Technology means we are able to spot in real time when suspicious bets are wagered."

Essa firms can use "stop losses" or betting ceilings to prevent further bets being placed.

"Once irregular betting has been identified, this information is shared among the Essa group with an hour, and if proved to be suspicious, passed to sport federation," says Mr Ali.

"We are building some momentum now and would like other people to come on board, such as state monopolies."

'Little education'

Essa has also devised a code of conduct for sportsmen and women and is working with sporting body EU Professional Athletes.

Mr Ali has carried out face-to-face meetings with athletes in Germany, France and Spain, talking about issues such as match-fixing and betting.

And it is hoped that Essa can further expand that work with the European athletes group next year.

"We have had players coming to us and asking us to help them," he adds.

"Some of them have had no, or very little, education on gambling and sporting regulations.

"We see young athletes, not betting very heavily, but going against the rules of their sport."

And he says that a few sports do not even have a gambling reference in their code of conduct.

Denied wrongdoing

At present, the Pakistan case looks like dragging on for a while yet.

Mr Butt and Mr Amir have lost their appeals to the ICC over the provisional bans, while Mr Asif has withdrawn his appeal.

PCB official Zakir Khan said the players' contracts were suspended in line with the ICC's anti-corruption code.

The innocence or guilt of the players, who have denied any wrongdoing, will be judged at an independent tribunal, the date of which has yet to be set.

'Challenges facing sport'

ESSA's Mr Ali believes that many of the problems surrounding sports gambling which have arisen over the past year have been associated with markets where gambling is banned, such as the Asian sub-continent and East Asia.

"When you have prohibitions, gambling is driven underground into the black market," he says.

And he warns there is no room for complacency.

"The challenges currently facing sports - and in particular how we deal with the integrity issues - are so fundamental that if we don't manage them correctly and swiftly they could send sport - and the sports gaming industry - into decline."

"But if we grasp the initiative, we really do have the chance to put the brakes on match fixing."

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