Writing for SBC News, Delasport takes a deep dive into the history of sports betting, shedding some light on what lies ahead for this burgeoning industry.

Delasport: sports betting through the ages part 1

In a two-part series for SBC News, Delasport takes a deep dive into the history of sports betting, shedding some light on what lies ahead for this burgeoning industry.

Sports betting has been recorded as far as 2000 years ago. Since there have been sports, people have been compelled to bet on the results. Regulation on sports betting was first recorded in the year 1190 when the first gambling laws were introduced by the Kings of England and France. Fast-forward the centuries, and today shows a whole other picture. 

From the first bookmakers and retail venues through tele-betting, Internet-betting and mobile, the sports betting market is as big as it has ever been. Sports betting accounts for 40-45% of the total global GGY. According to market reports, the global online sports betting market size is anticipated to expand from USD 24B in 2019 to USD 59B by 2026. The UK Sports Betting market size is about 2.3 billion euros, 800m in Italy, 1bn in Germany, 500m in Sweden, 600m in Ontario, 600m in New Jersey and 500m in Pennsylvania. 

Factors such as the computing power, technology availability, proliferation of connected devices, shifting regulatory landscapes, harsh competition, and growing digital infrastructure have all fueled the demand for sports betting, alongside the increase in the number of leagues and events.  While modern players enjoy the convenience and depth of today’s sports betting experiences thanks to the evolution of technology, the history of how the practice came to be is a testament to how far things have come, and what the future may hold.

Early days 

While there have undoubtedly been smaller-scale wagers going on for much longer, the first actual records of larger-scale sports betting date back more than 2000 years. Alongside the Olympic games, the ancient Greeks were among the first to popularize sports betting, which the Romans went on to adopt and amplify during their conquests. Although their empire grew and eventually fell, the spectacle of mass sports and making wagers continued. 

Law and regulation during these times and onwards to the medieval age were heavily centered around religion, where spiritual leaders condemned gambling in all its forms. However (as is human nature) the practice simply went underground and became a large part of organized crime syndicates. This all changed around 1190 when the first gambling laws were introduced by the Kings of England and France.

1700 – 1960 The first bookmaker and early legislation

The United Kingdom was one of the first places that sports betting took off running – literally: The horse track was a popular attraction for the middle and wealthy classes. In those early days, sports bets only extended to betting on a winner until, in 1700, a man called Harry Ogden realized that some horses were more likely to win than others – creating the concept of odds in betting.

Spending most of his time at the horse track, Ogden began to take bets based on the odds he had invented, crafting them in his favor to remain in profit. This is the very first instance of a bookmaker creating such a system, and other entrepreneurs around the country soon followed suit.

Regulatory issues popped up once again. Punters were taking bookmakers to court for not paying, and vice versa – plus, the government was not making money on taxes. This changed with a series of laws, including:

  • The 1845 Gaming Act, which didn’t make betting illegal, but didn’t make it legally enforceable either – with the idea of discouraging people from taking the risk. This was modified in 2007 which made outright cheating illegal.
  • The 1853 Betting Act, making it illegal to use or keep any property for the purposes of betting or gaming, effectively outlawing off-track betting. However, all this did was cause an increase in on-street gambling.
  • 1960 Betting and Gaming Act, which finally allowed betting shops to exist.
  • The 2005 Gambling Act, with the aim of consolidating all previous laws into one and encouraging a more transparent and honest industry.

1960 – 1991: Retail shops and tele-betting

Betting shops began to spring up in droves when the new UK gaming legislation was implemented in 1961, with stores opening at a rate of 100 per week, with an estimated 10,000 shops open by the beginning of 1962. It is unknown who founded the first betting shop, but by the late 1970s, there were over 15,000 locations. In the United Kingdom, Ladbrokes, William Hill, Coral, and Betfred dominated the market, with Paddy Power being the foremost operator in Ireland. While many competitors have come onto the scene since then, these pioneers are still in business today.

As technology continued its rise to dominion, tele-betting soon became the favored method of laying down wagers for punters in the 1960s who could not (or preferred not to) attend sporting events in person or to make the effort to walk/drive to the sports betting shop. By making bets over the phone, a new and more convenient way was established, which was quickly popularized by the old guard of bookmakers, including William Hill. Tele-betting made sports betting more accessible as punters were allowed to bet in the comfort of their homes without the need to go outside in the heat or cold.

1961 also saw the very first instance of virtual sport thanks to IBM engineer, John Burgeson, who invented a baseball simulation game. The game matched two teams against one another, with the outcome determined by a random number generator and player statistics

1991 – 1996: The first sportsbook and rise of online sports betting

in 1991, the Internet went public and the first online sportsbook soon emerged, created by German company, Intertops. Founded in 1982, they were not allowed to trade in Germany, so they moved to London in 1983 to offer physical sportsbook services to bettors. However, after spotting a huge opportunity with the Internet, they brought their sportsbook online in 1994 – the first of its kind.

In 1996, a soccer match between Tottenham Hotspur and Hereford United occurred in an FA Cup replay. While this in itself was nothing special, it was in fact the very first time an online sports bet was placed – with a win from a Finnish bettor. It didn’t take long before online sports betting gained traction and began its journey to the billion-dollar industry that it is today. Following Intertops’ pioneering move online, other operators quickly joined in the fray to build up a whole new, international marketplace. 

The speed of technological developments and the rate of new entrants simply outran any existing legislation, leaving players exposed to betting sites that didn’t have their best interests at heart. With unethical and rogue operators sharing platforms with legitimate businesses, consumer confidence was far from concrete. Laws and regulations began to crop up but were haphazard in their implementation with some countries being too strict, and others too undefined. 

2000: Engagement evolution

By the late 90s, the competition was heating up with new market entrants coming onto the scene in droves. To attract more bettors, betting sites began to follow the example of online casinos by offering incentives, bonuses, and free bets to new consumers, as well as separate incentives for that all-important customer retention. Things such as cashback, enhanced odds and a range of different wagers became commonplace, and as a result, the race for differentiation only became more intense. 

Part two to come soon.

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