Soccer, Betting, And The Special Relationship

Why is it so much harder to bet on a soccer game in the United States than it is in the United Kingdom?
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On a cool, damp December evening in North London, fans wrapped in red and white scarves were huddled in groups beneath the gleaming stadium, watching pregame shows on the small TVs posted high on beams and guzzling beer. Soon they’d pour through tunnels and taking their seats. With beer not allowed in the bowl of the stadium, it was a race against the clock to drink enough before kick-off; especially on a Tuesday night in which many fans had come directly from work. They took this very seriously.

Off to the side, another mass of humanity huddled around a window. Rather than putting down their pounds and walking away with a cold beer, these men were handing sheets of paper to the people behind the counter, following it with some mix of coins and bills and then departing empty-handed.

In the interest of disclosure: I love beer. Especially in the moments before watching my first Premier League game at the home of my beloved Arsenal. But it was that other window that I couldn’t take my eyes off, unless it was to study the form I’d grabbed from the pile next to the window. I knew before I walked through the gate what I would find, yet my mind couldn’t get over what I was seeing.

Here in the United States, the state of New Jersey will find out later this month whether the Supreme Court will hear its case arguing to legalize sports gambling. The biggest opponents of this law are the professional sports leagues themselves, which have banded together and spent millions of dollars to keep sports wagering from being legalized in any state where it isn’t already allowed.

But a short flight away, on the island of my ancestors, I could not only bet on a game in the same city as a pro team. I could even place that bet in the team’s own stadium.

God save the Queen.

***

On the eve of the World Cup, the largest sporting event in the world and in parallel the most heavily bet sporting event in the world, the U.S. remains an outlying curiosity. Not just in the stubborn refusal of some stateside fans to believe that soccer is a real sport, but also in the strict limitations on legal gambling options. If a country as similar to the United States as Britain is so very open to gambling, why aren’t we? Why do the two countries that claim a special relationship view gambling so differently?

The arguments for legalized sports betting are intuitive and practical. States nationwide are struggling to balance their budgets, and it is foolish to ignore a huge potential revenue stream like sports betting when other forms of legalized gambling such as slots, blackjack and poker are already in place. If states have legalized, regulated and taxed marijuana in a search for more revenue, why should sports betting be left out in the cold?

As Brian Tuohy neatly summarized, there are two key tenets in the arguments by U.S. sports leagues against legalized gambling. The first is that gambling diminishes a fan’s love of his team. The leagues apparently imagine fans saying to themselves, as they head to the exits after a thrilling last second win, “sure, they won the game but they didn’t cover -- the bums.” Second, the leagues argue that increased attention to gambling on sports leads to an increased belief that matches are influenced by corruption. This thinking holds that talking about whether a team covered the spread won’t shine a light on how good linemakers are but rather that one dubious play in the fourth quarter that cost the losers the game.

Worry about fans valuing gambling success over team success hasn’t kept the leagues from embracing fantasy sports, however. The leagues promote and run their own fantasy games, and that’s a hobby that separates the rooting interests of fans and teams even more than gambling. Of course, if there is one language sports commissioners are familiar with, it is hypocrisy. If the NFL can talk itself and others into a tangle of confusing untruths regarding concussions, it can argue the points above.

As for corruption, ask yourself whether it is more likely when gambling is done out the back of a bar or done with casinos operating in a heavily regulated industry. No individual game is worth enough for a casino to risk their long term business, and no one is in a better position to notice irregularities in betting patterns than a casino. There is something to be said for leaving all this to the professionals.

Yet, outside the deserts of Nevada and some limited betting in Delaware, Montana and Oregon, an American wanting to bet on sports either finds a local (illegal) betting ring or creates an offshore account and hopes that the betting house returns their winnings with no legal recourse if the betting shop closes before paying up. That happens to websites a lot more often than it does to casinos.

***

The arguments against legalized sports gambling are hypocritical, uninformed and reactionary. They are also very nearly woven into the DNA of our country. With an ingrained bias against something, the smallest anecdote becomes affirmation that our deeply held belief is correct. Man isn’t meant to fly, and so a single airline crash will generate more anxiety about the safety of air flight than ten times as many car crashes will about driving safety.

In the United States the bias against gambling runs deep. The Puritans banned gaming entirely. It was mostly the frontier areas where gambling lived in the U.S. As the natio nexpanded, so did gambling, which gave us the iconic images of card games within the saloons of the wild west. But as the fringe became civilized, gambling increasingly became a target of respectable society.

At the end of the 19th century and early in the 20th century the story of gambling in America could be easily confused with another vice – alcohol. Largely through the drive of religious organizations spreading anecdotal stories of the horrors they inflict on society, alcohol and gambling were both prohibited before 1920; alcohol by the federal government and gambling in all but the three states that retained legal gambling on horseracing.

The result was the same for both ostensible vices. They were driven underground, and so became the foundations for organized crime. Al Capone and his peers kept the bars of respectable Americans well, if discreetly, served; one could walk into any major city and find somewhere to lay a bet. One of the pioneers of the Las Vegas sports betting industry, Sonny Reizner, wrote of sitting in a particular area of the stands at Fenway Park as a youth that essentially functioned as an open air betting market, with bookmakers shouting out competing lines on every moment of game action.

In 1919, however, the paths of these two vices diverged. In October, the Black Sox scandal erupted when eight members of the Chicago White Sox admitted to being paid by gamblers to intentionally lose the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. This single incident left a stain on the American sporting landscape that bleeds, still, today. There have been a few match fixing scandals, primarily in college sports and lower-end tennis – unpaid and barely-paid athletes more susceptible to relatively small bribes – since the Black Sox, but those small examples have only been seen to reinforce the lessons learned, foremost among which was that nothing good can come from gambling. Where the prohibition on alcohol was abolished in 1933, the prohibition on sports gambling has only been strengthened since. This was a long time ago.

***

Two days after my visit to the Emirates stadium in December, the headlines of London papers read “Game’s governors forced to wake up to their biggest fear.” For days, papers reported allegations that players on British professional football teams had been paid by gamblers to fix games. Questions were being asked about how English football’s governing body could regulate against match-fixing. Every action of each player alleged to have been approached was analyzed for proof of corruption. Yet, in a Skip Bayless-ian world in which yelling the most ludicrous opinion the loudest is the surest way to get ahead, no remedy was ever offered. The umbrage was the thing, now as ever.

Not one pundit that I read or heard suggested banning gambling on sports. Not even the former head of security at FIFA, soccer’s ethically dubious international governing body, would take that stance. There is a reason for this.

Where generations of Americans have been taught to see gambling as sin, in England and around the world, it is simply a hobby and has been for as long as documentation exists. Something like golf but less expensive.

As far back as 1190, British Kings took time from their crusading across the holy land to put in place gambling regulations to ensure that the poor couldn’t strip the wealthy. Horseracing was being bet upon by the 1500’s, mere years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Laws of cricket were codified in 1744 to enable fairness for… bettors. Given that a single game can stretch several days, cricket might be the most gambling conducive sport in the world.

Over the years, there have been attempts to legislate gambling in the UK, but unlike their stateside counterparts, these are attempts to regulate rather than prohibit. Gambling is too deeply ingrained in the culture, too much a part of society even to consider prohibition. This is a country where one of the annual highlights of the Queen’s calendar is attending a horse race, the Royal Ascot. Her own horse won the event last year, although there’s no word on whether she had a quid riding along with the jockey.

Over the coming weeks, the betting houses that dot London the way Starbucks’ do Seattle will fill with people stopping in to lay a bet on that day’s World Cup action. People will pop in, lay their bets and get on with their days. In the time it takes for you drop off your dry cleaning, a Londoner can drop 10 pounds on France to beat Honduras.

Hypothetically – hypothetically, now – just to lay a World Cup bet in the U.S. you’d have to buy plane tickets, book a hotel and convince a buddy to fly to Vegas before Memorial Day for some golf and laying down early World Cup bets. Bets such as France to win the whole thing at 25-to-1, hypothetically.

(Seriously though, Vive la France)

England also acts as the direct counter-argument to the American sports leagues’ view on the impact of regulated gambling. While match fixing allegations swirl in the air all around the world of international soccer, it isn’t gamblers using British sportsbooks that drive this problem. The British leagues have proactively teamed with the betting houses, rightly seeing them as partners rather than adversaries in the fight on match fixing.

The games may be played in England, but the dark bets are being laid in the underground markets on the far side of the world in Southeast Asia – you know, underground markets like those that permeate the U.S., something like those that helped rig the 1919 World Series. Making match-fixing profitable requires large bets on games not receiving much attention – the types of bets that raise alarms in regulated markets and leave a paper trail. Regulated markets, that is, like those in which sports’ gambling is legal.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Winston Churchill declared a special relationship between the UK and U.S. Today we still possess many common attributes – a shared language; common taste in music; an intertwined history; a frankly creepy obsession with Kate Middleton. But gambling has never been one of those. There are many practical, logical reasons for the U.S. to adopt a more open attitude toward sports betting, one more like that held by our brethren in the UK. Unfortunately, a boat loaded down with a century of misconceptions and biases can’t turn on a dime.

***

As I exited The Emirates stadium on that December evening, a broad smile etched my face. Fans around me sang and chanted in celebration of Arsenal beating Hull City by a score of 2-0 to remain at the top of the Premier League table. A comfortable win at home is always to be celebrated, of course. But my bet laid on Arsenal winning by exactly 2-0 at 11-2 odds broadened that grin more than any song could have. The thrill of being at the game was worth a lot; I’ll never forget it. The rest was just a part of it, a little bit extra on top of what mattered most.


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