Winning Post: Match-fixing allegations rock Albanian football

Regulus Partnersthe strategic consultancy focused on international gambling and related industries, gives an insight into some of the key developments in the gambling industry as part of its ‘Winning Post’ column.

GB: horseracing – barriers belong on the course only…

A week since the Cheltenham Festival concluded. Better to let the dust settle before drawing significant conclusions. However, some important parties were reported to have suggested that ‘barriers’ needed setting to prevent the Irish ‘dominance’ that has been witnessed in recent renewals.

Barriers would be a dangerous thing. Yes, the Irish won the ‘war’ 17-11 but British-trained horses won the three major prizes. The handicap ‘battle’ was drawn 6-6. There’s an imbalance here in terms of winners to runners but there can be no complaints as UK handicappers issued the weights – the Irish ratings were not used. Equally, there was little discontent heard from over the Irish Sea in 1989 after the Irish had but two winners at the three previous Festivals (and that the same horse, Galmoy!). They got on with it and grew.

Equally, it’s not simply a tale of them now buying up all the best horses expensively, though of course they do have the mightiest jumps owners in terms of bulk. It is no coincidence that Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott have the best teams available to them: many of last week’s winners were bought relatively inexpensively from France and horses-in-training sales. They have the best talent-spotters and purchasers available to them. That’s where other stables need to catch up (it is perhaps telling that a number of British-based owners use Irish trainers).

Competition is a good thing. One must improve to compete. There was much professional carping about 15-time champion trainer Martin Pipe until he retired in 2006. He was a revolutionary. Those that studied his methods and then implemented them caught him up.

The funding question is of course a vexed one, and Ireland’s horseracing industry’s ability to take (relatively) more from its domestic betting market and benefit from a large adjacent market does give obvious advantages. But the GB industry has many strengths too. All too often in too many industries, groups which attempt to ‘level the playing field’ simply damage their own interests while finding palatable excuses for low productivity. Conversely, successful business interests see obstacles as things to overcome – perhaps we need to think a little more like athletes (equine and human) than corporate elites here…

Any perceived ‘dominance’ has no effect on betting interest either, judging by the number of bookmaker offers for the Festival, or punter excitement on social media and blogs, or the huge amount of column inches written by adoring journalists. OpenBet’s Cheltenham stats also show continued strong online betting interest: volumes were up nearly 10% on an already strong 2017 (with Gold Cup day seeing 27% volume growth to 28% of festival volume – two thirds of the total volume growth). Also, it’s hard to remember so many stand-out performances in any one week of racing. We just love this Festival, whoever is winning. What is needed is not the criticism of good (a very British trait), but spreading its essence more effectively across the racing calendar and across racing stakeholders.

UK: in Parliament – Lords Round on FOBTs as Bishop Laments what Mitre Been
God put in one of his occasional visits to the politics of gambling this week during a short debate on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals in the House of Lords. On this occasion, it was the Gambling Commission – occasionally partial to a bit of crusading zeal itself – that was withered by the wrath of our Heavenly Father (or at least the Anglican version).

The FOBT-bashing Bishop of St Albans took the regulator to task over its advice to the Government (that the maximum stake on machines in betting shops should be no more than £30 a spin), stating: “The children and families of addicts are simply bewildered at the Gambling Commission’s suggestion that a stake of up to £30 might be acceptable.”

The noble prelate went on to ask the Government for assurance “that the needs of the vulnerable will be placed above concerns about either tax revenue or the gambling lobby, and that a £2 stake is the only answer?”

Of course, the Government is not in a position to provide any such comfort as its 17-month review (which started nine months late) still has some way to run; and the response from the Baroness Chisolm of Owlpen simply triggered further howls from the burgundy benches.

Labour’s Lord Collins of Highbury hinted that DCMS would be well-advised to ignore the Commission’s advice reminding the Baroness that “the Gambling Commission’s advice does not abrogate the Government’s responsibilities to tackle this issue.” The Liberal Democrat Lord Addington pointed out that at £30 a spin, a week’s earnings on the National Minimum Wage might be wiped out in four minutes. Lord Alton of Liverpool (cross-bench) called for a £2 maximum before Labour’s Lord Tomlinson went one further by calling for the machines to be scrapped entirely.

There was a brief rally from Bariness McIntosh of Pickering who spoke up for betting shop employees in Thirsk, Ripon, Malton and Filey (and seemed to indicate that LBOs were among the chief attractions of these lovely North Yorkshire towns).

Baroness Chisholm reminded the House that the conclusion of the review was not certain, saying “it is not set in stone that [the stake limit] is going to be £30; it might be much lower than that”. She also revealed that the Government had received more than 7,000 submissions to the review – many times the number claimed for the first phase – prompting speculation that the ABB may have revived the ‘one shop, one response’ approach used in 2013.

The Bishop of St Albans was evidently not satisfied by the Government’s response and followed up the debate with a hat-trick of written Parliamentary Questions, asking who the Government had met with as part of its review (and when and where); whether all submissions to the review would be published (no doubt a dig at DCMS’s refusal to publish KPMG’s much discussed but rarely seen report for the ABB); and also whether the Government planned to carry out any “small-scale qualitative research” on different staking levels.

The third of these PQs exposed a common failing of the review, the research agenda and the case for the defence of FOBTs. Given how long this debate has been running, how much time, money and effort has been expended on it and the research opportunities afforded by access to more than 30,000 machines across 8,000 or so betting shops, it seems slightly crazy that no actual trials of different staking levels have been carried out to date.

Elsewhere, Colin Clark (Cons, Gordon) asked what steps the Government was taking to reduce problem gambling; the former Shadow Secretary of State for CMS, Kelvin Hopkins (Lab, Luton North) called for a report into the costs of alcohol, drug and gambling addictions; and that was about it.

Next week, we have a Westminster Hall Debate on digital taxation where remote gambling might get a mention; and a DCMS evidence session on fake news, where gambling policy discourse probably won’t be discussed despite very legitimate claims.

Global: Rugby World Cup – Romania qualify after Spain lose match refereed by a Romanian

The Spanish Rugby Federation has made a formal complaint to World Rugby and Rugby Europe after it lost its recent match against Belgium, and therefore missed out on automatic qualification for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Spain were favourites to win the match but must now go through the play-offs. The automatic qualifying place was instead taken by Romania.

Spain’s complaint centres on the fact that the referee for this match was Romanian, and their belief that the way in which he officiated the game prevented Spain from winning it. The situation is being investigated by World Rugby, and there have not yet been any findings that anything untoward occurred. Nor has there been any suggestion that if there was undue influence on the outcome of the game, that this was done for betting purposes.

However, even if betting were not the prime objective, if there was knowledge of a plot then that valuable information may have been used for profit in the betting markets, which will now be scoured for suspicious activity.  Meanwhile, Rugby Europe should be carefully reconsidering their procedures for the appointment of match officials, in our view. Even if there has been no wrongdoing, at the very least it is unfortunate that the match was refereed by someone from a country which stood to gain from one team losing the match. This is where sports event organisers and governing bodies have a responsibility to ensure that appropriate measures are taken to ensure that risk (actual and perceived) is reduced or eliminated where at all possible.

Europe: Football – UEFA threatens Albanian club with ten-year ban for match-fixing

Albania’s leading football club, KS Skenderbeu, is once again making headlines in relation to alleged match-fixing. The club has already served a one-year ban from UEFA competitions as an administrative measure upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (see Winning Post 3 February 2017). It now faces potentially far more serious consequences from a current UEFA investigation, if a leaked UEFA report is anything to go by.

The powerfully worded document is reported to speak of the club “fixing matches like nobody has done before in the history of the game” and seeking to obtain “criminal betting profits on a stunning global scale”. The club denies the allegations, but in such an apparently unsavoury case (with death threats having been reportedly made to UEFA investigators), the fact that UEFA is seeking a ten-year ban from all competitions should not be a surprise. If such serious allegations are proven then that would appear to be the least that should apply in order to make a meaningful statement about UEFA’s position on match-fixing, and to provide an effective deterrent for others.

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