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English Soccer Has a Gambling Problem

Online gambling's influence on soccer is growing fast, especially in England.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

On December 3, 2005, Harry Redknapp resigned as manager of Southampton Football Club. Five days later, he turned up some ten miles away in the city of Portsmouth, where he announced that he had become the new manager of Portsmouth Football Club. Redknapp has a reputation for courting controversy, to put it lightly, and in that sense, this move was about right. Portsmouth and Southampton are the South Coast's two biggest clubs (historically anyway; Portsmouth is now in League Two, England's fourth division), and they share a fierce, local rivalry. Fans weren't thrilled by the move, but it turned out to be far more controversial than a matter of rivalries.


After Redknapp signed for Portsmouth, Betfair, an online gambling exchange, revealed it had experienced an unusual volume of betting—to the tune of about £16.5 million (roughly $28 million in December 2005)—in the days preceding his appointment. The media had long touted Neil Warnock to take over as Portsmouth's manager, but Redknapp had come on strong, and come on unexpectedly.

"In any other business it is called insider trading," Rupert Lowe, Southampton's chairman, told The Telegraph. "The odds on Harry changed long before we had an official approach for him. The approach for him came very late in the proceedings, a long time after the odds told you he was going there."

In other words, people were betting hard on Redknapp to become Portsmouth's manager before he officially left Southampton. It was as though someone had inside knowledge of Redknapp's move. But who? Betfair gave England's Football Association access to its betting records from the period, but after looking at several suspects, the FA suspended its investigation.

The case is even more interesting because of what's happened in the nearly nine years since the Redknapp insider trading allegations were first floated and then investigated. In those nine years, online gambling's influence on global soccer has only grown. That influence is particularly troubling when you look at the English game, where the two industries—gambling and soccer—have an ever closer, more complicated relationship. The Redknapp to Portsmouth story was just an early indicator.


Consider the existential threat that match fixing, by way of online gambling, poses to the beautiful game. Last February, the New York Times reported that Europol, the European police, had conducted a "19-month investigation, code-named Operation Veto, [that] revealed widespread occurrences of match-fixing in recent years, with 680 games globally deemed suspicious." These matches aren't all lower-league, mud-covered kick abouts. We're talking about Champions League matches, at least one of which was played in England. We're talking about soccer at the very highest level.

Now consider that in England—home to the word's most popular and profitable league—betting companies are the main sponsors of four of the Premier League's 20 teams: Aston Villa has a two-year contract with Dafabet for $16.5 million; Burnley will earn $3.3 million over a two-year period thanks to sponsor Fun 88, an Asian gambling house; 12 Bet will give Hull City $2.6 million this season; and Stoke City will bring in $5 million this season from its sponsor Bet 365. That's $17.5 million in shirt sponsorship this season. And that doesn't include the $1.5 million Crystal Palace will receive from Neteller, a company that handles payment processing for online gambling, nor does it include minor sponsorship deals or deals with lower-league clubs, of which there are many.

Speaking of those lower leagues, they're all named after Sky Bet. In 2013, the Rupert Murdoch-owned online betting firm bought the naming rights to the English Championship as well as League One and League Two (the second, third, and fourth divisions, respectively). You read that correctly: There is a professional league in England called the Sky Bet Championship.


And what about the Football Association itself? The sport's governing body; the organization that counts its president as His Royal Highness Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, the future King of England; the organization that investigates allegedly inappropriate gambling activities? Well, among the FA's main sponsors is William Hill, one of England's largest gambling houses.

Sponsorship deals with betting firms are not necessarily indicative of wrongdoing, but when you think about how match fixing works, they don't look good. When Asian gambling syndicates—the organizations most often behind fixed matches—bribe players or refs, it's not like they just call them up and offer cash or fly some dude in from Singapore with a briefcase full of diamonds. It's more subtle than that. They'll use a local. They'll figure out a hard-to-track method for payment. When the fix is in, the syndicates will rig their own book and place bets online, which is how Dan Tan, soccer's preeminent match fixer, did it. They might have thousands of people across the continent placing $100 bets. Or maybe they have computers that can do it for them. Either way, with small bets the fix is hard to track.

What can the Football Association do about it? Prince William or not, the FA is not the same thing as the British government. It can't make arrests. It can't do much about England's love affair with gambling from a legal or even cultural standpoint either. But one thing it can do is distance itself from a key part of how match fixers operate: the actual gambling apparatus. Instead, the FA and English clubs have embraced that very apparatus. They've taken money from those organizations and now they're helping promote them.


Does that mean matches in England are being fixed and that the FA is knowingly complicit? No. I mean, who knows? The thing about gambling is that it encourages participants to game the system. It's not as skill-based as people are led to believe. (Getting participants to believe they're skilled is gambling's greatest deception.) The problem transcends Dan Tan and Asian gambling syndicates. If there's money to be made, people will look for opportunities to make it, even if that means cheating. Cheating, after all, is really the only way to guarantee a win. By its very nature, gambling is a destabilizing force. It only makes sense to keep distance between a sport that is predicated on fairness—like soccer—and an activity—gambling—which incentivizes unfairness.

So if Greg Dyke, the FA's Chairman, came to me and swore on the Bible and told me the English game was clean, I wouldn't necessarily believe him, even if he believed himself. Not when his employees are back in London cashing checks from Sky Bet and William Hill. Not when the destabilizing force and the governing body are in business together. Not when the hen house has put up a billboard and sold advertising space to the fox.

Anyway, it's not like the FA needs Harry Redknapp-level scandals in order to find some shady-looking betting activity. BskyB, Sky Bet's parent company, pays 760 million pounds per year for the Premier League's broadcasting rights. BskyB also owns Sky Sports, which, among other programs, hosts round-the-clock, CNN-style coverage of the transfer news each transfer deadline day. If a player (or manager) is moving clubs, Sky Sports will know about it. It tracks every rumor, bullshit or otherwise. It even sends reporters to wait outside training grounds for players to show up in their Ferraris.

This is all part of the drama. While the reporters are out tracking down scoops, studio anchors are telling viewers where, say, Danny Welbeck is likely to sign, running down a list of potential clubs. Here's the sketchy part: the anchors pause every so often to show you Sky Bet's odds on where that player might sign. And if Sky Bet suspends betting on a certain player, Sky Sports reports that action as news.

The practice seems like a pretty clear conflict of interest: Sky Sports, the company with the most influence on the transfer rumor mill, advertises for its sister company, Sky Bet, a company that makes money off people betting on the transfer rumors. What's preventing BskyB from using Sky Sports, the network with the most access to English soccer and influence on gamblers, to move its sportsbook Sky Bet?

Neither BskyB nor Sky Bet have responded to VICE Sports' requests for comment. The FA's insider trading investigators might do well to just go over to the BskyB offices to ask the question themselves. But with all that money on the line, don't hold your breath.